Motorola unveils Project Ara modular smartphone

October 29, 2013 // 10:36 a.m.

Tags: #ara #ara-endo #ara-module #ara-modules #dave-hakkens #endoskeleton #google #modular-phone #modular-smartphone #motorola #phonebloks #project-ara #smartphone

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.


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