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Motorola unveils Project Ara modular smartphone

Motorola unveils Project Ara modular smartphone

Motorola's Project Ara envisions, like the Phonebloks concept, a modular smartphone infinitely customisable to a particular user's requirements - just like a PC.

Google subsidiary Motorola has thrown its lot in with Phonebloks and announced that it plans to bring Dave Hakkens' vision to reality as Project Ara, a modular smartphone platform.

Revealed to the world back in September, Hakkens' Phonebloks caused something of a stir with its suggestion of taking the monolithic smartphone design and turning it on its head with a modular layout which allows for near-infinite customisation and simple upgrade paths. Under Phonebloks, Hakkens explained, a user can easily add a better camera, larger battery, or even a faster CPU to his or her smartphone.

If that sounds familiar, it should: that very concept has been central to the world of personal computers going right back to the Altair Bus - also known as the S-100 bus - which allowed users to add features to their system by connecting or replacing add-in boards. Mix in a little IBM PC, which was instrumental in the creation of the open computing ecosystem we enjoy today, and you've got the modern personal computing industry.

Hakkens' idea generated interest, but few considered it commercially viable. Few except Motorola, it seems, which has today revealed it has been working in secret for the past year to bring something substantially similar to the Phonebloks concept to reality as Project Ara.

'Led by Motorola’s Advanced Technology and Projects group, Project Ara is developing a free, open hardware platform for creating highly modular smartphones. We want 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,' explained Motorola's Paul Eremenko in the announcement.

'Our goal is to drive a more thoughtful, expressive, and open relationship between users, developers, and their phones. To give you the power to decide what your phone does, how it looks, where and what it’s made of, how much it costs, and how long you’ll keep it.'

The Project Ara platform works by providing the user with an endoskeleton, or 'Endo,' which provides an interconnection fabric for all the individual components. Users can then buy modules to customise the feature set of their particular handset: one user might opt for a large touch-screen, powerful battery, quad-core processor and small camera; another might use a smaller battery and less power-hungry processor to make room for a high-resolution camera with zoom lens; still another might use a daylight-readable ePaper display, physical buttons and a pulse oximiter to create a rugged electronic healthcare device.

Motorola is quick to point out that it came up with the concept independently, but is keen to work with Hakkens. 'We’ve been working on Project Ara for over a year,' Eremenko claimed. 'Recently, we met Dave Hakkens, the creator of Phonebloks. Turns out we share a common vision: to develop a phone platform that is modular, open, customizable, and made for the entire world. We’ve done deep technical work. Dave created a community. The power of open requires both. So we will be working on Project Ara in the open, engaging with the Phonebloks community throughout our development process, as well as asking questions to our Project Ara research scouts.'

There's a lot of work to be done before you'll see a Project Ara kit at retail, however, but Motorola is keen to get started: the company has announced it will be releasing the first Module Developer's Kit before the end of the year, allowing programmers and engineers to get started on building modules for the Project Ara Endo.

More details are available at the project announcement page, or you can check out Hakkens' original Phonebloks announcement video below.

24 Comments

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GuilleAcoustic 29th October 2013, 10:43 Quote
Good idea ! Hope the pricing will be nice.
Nexxo 29th October 2013, 11:00 Quote
That would be seriously awesome --and for some reason I see it working really well with the WP8 GUI (I know, won't happen --but a guy can dream).
Dave Lister 29th October 2013, 11:39 Quote
It's nice to see this develop a bit more.
Icy EyeG 29th October 2013, 11:44 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Nexxo
That would be seriously awesome --and for some reason I see it working really well with the WP8 GUI (I know, won't happen --but a guy can dream).

I can happen, if Microsoft embraces the concept. I would guess, though, that it may be against its new "Apple-like" philosophy.
rollo 29th October 2013, 12:23 Quote
If only Motorola does it then the only way it would end up on Microsoft handsets is if they declared windows mobile dead.
theshadow2001 29th October 2013, 15:42 Quote
I love the concept.

The execution of course could be a lot more difficult. Particularly software maintenance and dealing with incompatibilities due various blocks being used in a phone. Change the camera and your QR code reader app stops working.

I think the only way this could really work well is if it goes like the pc industry where standards are created and used by the entire industry. Thats very unlikely however.

Still I hold out hope for the idea.
Nexxo 29th October 2013, 17:35 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Icy EyeG
I can happen, if Microsoft embraces the concept. I would guess, though, that it may be against its new "Apple-like" philosophy.

If this block system patent is owned by Motorola (read: Google), it may not be licensed to competitors.
Quote:
Originally Posted by rollo
If only Motorola does it then the only way it would end up on Microsoft handsets is if they declared windows mobile dead.

That makes no sense whatsoever. :?
GuilleAcoustic 29th October 2013, 17:47 Quote
A way to solve the drivers issue could be something already made on old amigas. Bach then, the drivers could be embedded with the hardware, inside an EEPROM.
Unicorn 29th October 2013, 19:18 Quote
I believe this is possible purely based on the fact that the computer industry at large has been using the same basic principle for decades. I also believe that if anyone can make it work, it's a company owned by Google. If (is there really an if?) it's going to run Android, they will not license it to competitors, but it will still be a more open platform than iPhone and even Windows Phone, although it's not too much of a stretch to think that Microsoft might get on board and that the devices would be capable of running WM.

This would quite possibly pry me away from iPhone and iOS.
Nexxo 29th October 2013, 21:02 Quote
Would be amazing if one of the swappable blocks would contain the OS. Build the phone you want, with the OS you want. Swap OS as you want.
theshadow2001 29th October 2013, 21:09 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by GuilleAcoustic
A way to solve the drivers issue could be something already made on old amigas. Bach then, the drivers could be embedded with the hardware, inside an EEPROM.

This is true but you I would hazard a guess that you would probably still need a sort of software layer as a go between the hardware and the software. In a similar manner to how directx interfaces with graphics cards. Certainly not ideal.
TheMadDutchDude 29th October 2013, 21:22 Quote
Great to see the Phonebloks thing kicking off. :D
Icy EyeG 29th October 2013, 21:43 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Nexxo
If this block system patent is owned by Motorola (read: Google), it may not be licensed to competitors.

Well, that already happens with Android paying for Microsoft patents. This time, however, the roles would reverse.
Fortunately, it seems that's not the case:
BaPf4ZIbDVM
(see at 1:40)
Dogbert666 29th October 2013, 22:07 Quote
Would absolutely love to see this work well.
GuilleAcoustic 30th October 2013, 09:08 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by theshadow2001
This is true but you I would hazard a guess that you would probably still need a sort of software layer as a go between the hardware and the software. In a similar manner to how directx interfaces with graphics cards. Certainly not ideal.

Here is a little explaination of "How it worked" :
Quote:
If you are developing a hardware expansion product for the Classic Amiga (e.g. 500, 2000, 3000) then you will need to obtain a special manufacturer ID number from the AmigaOS development team to identify your product. This manufacturer number is used by the Amiga to link your hardware with its driver software at boot time.

Your manufacturer number is part of the special protocol that the Amiga uses to automatically configure all expansion devices on the bus without the user having to cut jumpers or adjust dip switches. This is called auto-config.

At start-up time, the system first polls each board in the system and assigns the board its own address space. If it is a memory board, its RAM is linked into the memory free pool. Later in the boot sequence, after DOS is initialized, the binddrivers program is run. Binddrivers will search the directory SYS:Expansion for the drivers that go with the boards.

To do this binddrivers looks in the Tool Type field of all icon files in SYS:Expansion. If the first seven bytes of the Tool Type field are "PRODUCT", then this is an icon file for a driver.

Binddrivers will then attempt to match the drivers it has found with the boards that were found earlier. This is where your manufacturer number comes in.

[snip snip snip snip]

The auto-config process makes the addition of expansion products to the system very easy. All the user has to do is put the board in any slot and copy the driver from the release disk to his own SYS:Expansion drawer. Everything else is automatic. There are no jumpers or dip switches to set.

This is a summarized explaination. If the "driver" copy can be automated from the EPROM to the OS folder, then it's a pure win. With a standardized driver name (e.g: driver.pak) and thanks to the identifier thing, I do not see how you couldn't do it.

I can imagine, if the OS finds a new hardware and has no driver for it, it copies the driver from the hardware EPROM. You could still drag and drop new driver later.

I really miss the Amiga. I'm wondering what the computing world would look like if they where still there and a major actor of modern computing.
Gareth Halfacree 30th October 2013, 09:17 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by GuilleAcoustic
I can imagine, if the OS finds a new hardware and has no driver for it, it copies the driver from the hardware EPROM.
See also: devices that show up as USB Mass Storage, which have their drivers (or other software) held on the UMS partition. EPROMs are too small (and outdated) for a driver, but by gosh a 256MB flash partition would be plenty big enough to tell Android ('cos, let's face it, Google isn't going to let Motorola use a different OS here) how to use the device. (Although, to make things cheaper, it's more likely that the phone would just download a driver from the internet - it's a *phone*, after all.)
Quote:
I really miss the Amiga. I'm wondering what the computing world would look like if they where still there and a major actor of modern computing.
It ain't dead, it's just crazy-expensive. Ignoring upgrading an existing Amiga to run the latest AmigaOS (which requires a PowerPC accelerator card, which will set you back an absolute minimum of around £800 and more likely £1,000 plus) there are companies still producing Amiga-compatible hardware. In fact, ACube is currently teasing something new...
GuilleAcoustic 30th October 2013, 09:32 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Gareth Halfacree
See also: devices that show up as USB Mass Storage, which have their drivers (or other software) held on the UMS partition. EPROMs are too small (and outdated) for a driver, but by gosh a 256MB flash partition would be plenty big enough to tell Android ('cos, let's face it, Google isn't going to let Motorola use a different OS here) how to use the device. (Although, to make things cheaper, it's more likely that the phone would just download a driver from the internet - it's a *phone*, after all.)

EPROM is just an old habit of mine :D .... I left programming school when USB sticks where still inexistant. I remember buying my first USB stick, a 64MB one (yes Megabytes) for a whoping 70€ 10 years ago. I'm not that old, but computing moved so fast during the last 10/15 years. Yes a flash memory would be better for sure.
Quote:
Originally Posted by Gareth Halfacree
It ain't dead, it's just crazy-expensive. Ignoring upgrading an existing Amiga to run the latest AmigaOS (which requires a PowerPC accelerator card, which will set you back an absolute minimum of around £800 and more likely £1,000 plus) there are companies still producing Amiga-compatible hardware. In fact, ACube is currently teasing something new...

I've seen this, the Amiga X1000. It even has an XMOS coprocessor along side the power PC :
Quote:
'Xena' is a new feature of the AmigaOne line. It is the name A-Eon have given to the XMOS XCore XS1-L2 124 located on the X1000 motherboard connected to the 'Xorro' slot, a modified PCI-express slot. XCore XS1 is an event driven architecture made scalable by the low-latency links between cores and zero-latency communication between threads on the same core. 'Xena', a single-core XS1, has eight hardware threads that together provide a maximum of 500 MIPS.

Roughly one quarter of Xena's I/O lines are directly connected to the CPU local bus, while the remaining three quarters are connected to the Xorro slot. These I/O lines to the Xorro slot are configurable in software using 'XC', a set of extensions to the C programming language. They provide a low-latency connection both to the main system and to any Xorro expansions, allowing data sampling or custom hardware control over Xorro. This also makes it possible to link additional XCore chips to Xena via Xorro, scaling up the co-processor's performance accordingly.
Gareth Halfacree 30th October 2013, 09:36 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by GuilleAcoustic
I've seen this, the Amiga X1000. It even has an XMOS coprocessor along side the power PC :
If that's what they're teasing, I'll be sorely disappointed. That ain't new - I wrote about that right here, back in 2010.
GuilleAcoustic 30th October 2013, 09:39 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Gareth Halfacree
If that's what they're teasing, I'll be sorely disappointed. That ain't new - I wrote about that right here, back in 2010.

TBH, I do not know, I only had the X1000 name in mind and went to wiki . But from what I remember, those X1000 where hard to get a hand on.

EDIT: From what I've read, the AmigaOne X2000 is being beta tested. Not much info on it yet except that it uses a P5020 PowerPC processor.
ashchap 31st October 2013, 13:02 Quote
This phone would be enormous! If you look how closely the components in a modern phone are packed in and around each other you can see straight away how much extra space would be added by putting each component in a separate box and adding god knows how many pins on the bottom.

The other main problem I can see is antennas. Where do you put them? - If the antenna comes with the block then it would be completely the wrong size and in a poor location. If the antenna is not in the block, then how do you add a new one? What about different blocks that could share an antenna? What about big antennas like NFC? do you have another block that sits on top of all the others?

It's a nice idea but I can't see it taking off as the vast majority of people really don't care about upgradability (see lack of microSD cards and removable batteries in new phones), and no one will want a bulky phone just on the off chance that they will upgrade a single component in a few years time.
Nexxo 31st October 2013, 19:52 Quote
Not really. Check out the iPhone. Three-quarters of its mass is battery. The actual PCB is smaller than a stick of gum. The 4G/WiFi antennas could sit behind the screen, which is the main common component. Bluetooth antennae can be tiny, as Logitech's Bluetooth dongles show.
ashchap 1st November 2013, 08:57 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Nexxo
The actual PCB is smaller than a stick of gum.

Exactly. It would be much bigger than a stick of gum if the storage, cpu, screen controller and radios were split out into separate boxes as is being proposed.
Nexxo 1st November 2013, 20:25 Quote
Your logic is flawed.
dancingbear84 1st November 2013, 20:41 Quote
I thought that this was a great idea. It may make things bigger, but in reality probably not that much. I'd really like to see this. It'd cut wastage by a mile

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