Motorola Mobility, Google's mobile phone division, is betting big on the consumer appeal of mass customization for the electronic devices that are by our sides all day and all night.
Its current offering, the Moto X, comes in 18 back colors, with 7 accent colors to choose from. The experimental Project Ara plans to take things a big step further, with a free and open hardware platform that will allow nonspecialists to design compatible physical parts for the phone—parts that are swappable, rather like Legos. On top of a basic structural frame and circuit board, the consumer can choose from a series of modules. Perhaps you'll be able to add a better camera, a boosted Wi-Fi antenna, more storage, or replace a broken piece to extend the life of your phone (and keep it out of a landfill).
On Friday, Motorola announced a partnership with 3-D Systems, a 3-D-printer maker, to take Project Ara one step closer to reality by providing manufacturing and distribution of the phones' modular parts. They expect development to take at least a year, as 3-D printing technology needs to be updated so it can inexpensively and flexibly combine conductive materials alongside the plastic resin filament that comprises normal 3-D-printed substrate. Motorola previously announced that they will be partnering with Phonebloks, an independent community of developers who want to create swappable phone components—"like an app store for hardware."
This is bleeding-edge stuff (although not the first of its kind). Symbolically, Motorola—and by extension, Google—are clearly staking out a position in favor of openness and crowdsourced design, which fits with its Android strategy and against the highly controlled, closed-platform approach of Apple.