Motorola Project Ara Wants to Make Modular Smartphones a Reality

By Wesley Fenlon

Most people thought the modular smartphone concept Phonebloks was crazy. Motorola aims to prove them wrong.

Phonebloks is real, but it's not called Phonebloks. It's called Project Ara, and it's Motorola's ambitious plan to make modular smartphones, just like the popular Youtube video for Phonebloks envisioned in September. Motorola wants to bring open hardware to smartphones, just like Android made open source software a powerful force in mobile. And since Phonebloks has already created a community of people passionate about modular smartphones, Motorola's teaming up with Phonebloks' creator to guide Project Ara's development.

When the video for Phonebloks--which was just a concept, not an actual device--picked up millions of Youtube views, it earned a fair bit of skepticism. The modular smartphone idea seemed impractical. Or impossible. But the experts we talked to thought it was completely feasible.

The real challenge a project with Phonebloks faced was on the business side of things. Building a modular smartphone was and is possible, but Phoneblocks would likely need support from major technology companies and manufacturers for displays, CPUs, and other parts. And to be affordable, those parts would have to be created in large quantities. Making those kinds of deals--especially if Phonebloks looked like a competitor to Samsung or LG or another company--may have been very difficult.

With the backing of Google and a team of Android designers, Motorola doesn't have those problems. Project Ara could one day be as core to the Android ecosystem as the Nexus line. Ara's vision is extremely similar to what we saw in the Phonebloks video last month; Motorola's website states "The design for Project Ara consists of what we call an endoskeleton (endo) and modules. The endo is the structural frame that holds all the modules in place. A module can be anything, from a new application processor to a new display or keyboard, an extra battery, a pulse oximeter--or something not yet thought of!"

Ara still isn't guaranteed to become a real hardware platform. Motorola is currently offering interested hardware enthusiasts the option to become "Ara scouts" and collaborate on "missions," which Motorola describes as "opportunities to share photos, ideas and commentary about topics relating to Project Ara." The site notes that "If together we can make Project Ara a success, a hundred of the most active scouts will receive an early release version at no cost." This community-informed design process will last for the next 6-12 months.

In other words, if you want a modular smartphone, now's the time to speak up.