Recently, the Internet lit up with the announcement of the Phonebloks smartphone concept. Instead of buying a new smartphone when your old one is outdated, you could simply swap in newer modular parts. Motorola took note, and worked with a Phonebloks designer to launch Ara, a project to invent a modular smartphone.
Project Ara is an attempt at crowdsourcing a modular phone design. As Motorola puts it, “a phone designed for 6 billion people should be inspired by at least a few thousand,” and the company is already asking for volunteers to help create the device. The idea is to build a phone chassis that has swappable parts, maybe down to the level of Wi-Fi antennas or Bluetooth modules.
Brilliant! It’s an attack on obsolescence, Motorola suggests. Except there are technological mountains to climb, and one big economic secret for Ara. A modular phone may suffer some serious compromises. It’s not easy to design a phone with a CPU that talks to different modular Wi-Fi chips, for example, or one where the circuitry can be broken by several connectors. Devices made this way could thus have weak performance.
Then there’s the motivation for Ara. An end to obsolescence? Nice, except obsolescence can sometimes push technology into new paradigms. At some point Motorola will want to change the data bus in the Ara, like Apple swapped the iPod connector for Lightning, and thus cost you more. Also Motorola would love to sell you a new CPU plug-in module for $50 and another one next year…
Lastly, remember Modu? This idea has some heritage, including a product that actually got made.