Talking tech since 2003

In recent months, there’ve been two basic news narratives for smartphones. The first is, “Hey, look at how cool the X new smartphone is from Y!” The second is, “Hey, look at how these carriers are letting you upgrade your phone without as many hassles as they used to!” I’m not judging either narrative, since they’re quite simply important in terms of the smartphone industry. But an announcement from Motorola today might add a third narrative—and it all starts with what it’s calling Project Ara.

project-ara-2According to a post on Motorola’s blog, the company—which, I should remind you, is owned by Android-maker Google—Project Ara “is developing a free, open hardware platform for creating highly modular smartphones.” To define just what that means, the goal in creating a “modular smartphone” is to find a reliable and cost-effective way to swap different parts and components in and out of a smartphone.

As the post puts it, Project Ara wants “to do for hardware what the Android platform has done for software: create a vibrant third-party developer ecosystem, lower the barriers to entry, increase the pace of innovation, and substantially compress development timelines.”

The folks on the Project Ara team met up with Dave Hakkens of Phonebloks, a similar (and independent) initiative, and they seem to be on the same page. Now, the above-linked Phonebloks video managed to garner millions of hits and lots of Internet buzz, but Tech Feed’s Scott Bromley opined last month that despite how good the concept looks on paper, it wasn’t technically feasible:

But with Motorola’s announcement of Project Ara and its endorsement of Phonebloks’ idea, it would seem that they know something that critics like Bromley don’t.

Now, whatever your feelings are about carrying a phone that looks like a jigsaw puzzle, there are a number of reasons why a modular smartphone is a great idea. For one, as Phonebloks’ video points out, a lot of times there’s only one component inside a smartphone that breaks, but because of its construction, the whole thing has to be junked. Moreover, disposing of entire bricks chock full of electronics is wasteful, and can be potentially harmful to the environment. These harms are minimized through phone recycling programs, but even still, the manufacturing and packaging of these things isn’t too good for the environment as a whole.

But, being able to swap out one small broken part for a working one is a much more eco-friendly solution. Fewer resources will go into the construction and shipment of a modular smartphone processor, camera, or screen. On top of that, the idea has potential for being more wallet-friendly as well. Not satisfied with the processor on your phone? Maybe you can get a cheaper, just-as-powerful alternative.

Essentially, it’s bringing the customizable PC mentality to the world of smartphones. And that makes sense because, well, smartphones are just pocket-sized computers. If this idea actually takes off—and with Google’s muscle behind it, that might not be too tough—it could fundamentally change the smartphone business.

Or, it could just be a niche product for turbo-nerds like me who are sick of how slow their HTC smartphones are in comparison to all the super-fast shiny new Samsung phones out there, and have processor-envy. Either way.

Anyway, Motorola isn’t content to simply tease tech enthusiasts—the company wants to bring people in on the action. I signed up to become an “Ara Scout,” and I’m looking forward to finding out how I might contribute to making a modular smartphone a reality.

Am I alone on this? Let me know in the comments.

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