Motorola announces Ara, a modular, open and upgradeable smartphone hardware platform

Daniel Bader

October 29, 2013 10:12 am

Wonder why Google bought Motorola? A lot of people have been asking that question over the past few years, as the company consistenly failed to turn a profit or release innovative smartphones.

Then the Moto X arrived. While the device itself did not single-handedly turn around Motorola’s sagging fortunes, it heralded in a new era of Google-inspired design and heavy integration (and optimization) of software and hardware. Now that the Moto X is well established, we have been wondering: what’s next for Motorola? How do they do for Google in hardware what Android did for mobile software?

The answer may be Ara. The company has been experimenting over the past year with a free, open hardware platform where it will be theoretically possible for anyone to create pieces of a smartphone, with no associated licensing fees, for your hand. According to a Motorola blog post, they intend Ara to “create a vibrant third-party developer ecosystem, lower the barriers to entry, increase the pace of innovation, and substantially compress development timelines.”

While Ara will certainly affect the way your phone looks, imagine the broader appeal: as annual hardware increases become less pronounced, it will be possible to keep that blazing-fast processor but upgrade your camera module to something better. Want more storage? Swap out the NAND for a higher-capacity version. No more paying $100-150 more for another 16GB of storage. Just as you would buy the body of a digital SLR and augment the experience using lenses of different quality and purpose, so too could you modify your phone depending on your needs.

ara2blogpost

The industry has been doing this on its own for some time, in its own hacky sort of way. From oversized batteries that required new rear covers to fisheye or macro lenses affixed on top of a baseline camera module, there have been glimpses of this before. But Motorola wants to make it real, make it tangible and, more importantly, easier.

Ara consists of two parts: an endoskeleton (or “endo”) and various modules. The endo provides the structural integrity to hold everything in place, and will form the baseline size of your device. I can see there being a number of base endo sizes to choose from, depending on the desired screen length and resolution, much like the Live Tile system on Windows Phone. Modules then add various features — “an extra battery, a pulse oximeter–or something not yet thought of!” — to improve the experience.

Motorola admits to working with Phonebloks, a project by Dave Hakkens, to bring the community together. Phonebloks is a similar concept to Ara, an upgradeable and modular hardware platform for smartphones. Looks like Motorola’s work has been independent of his, but because Phonebloks has a massive community of supports, the two companies will work together on building awareness for their respective programs.

Ara Scouts will be people interested in promoting the idea of Ara and, like Google’s Glass Explorers, will likely have a chance to use the finished products before anyone else. Motorola plans to release a Module Developer Kit over the next few months, which will give us some more information about Ara.

SourceMotorola

  • EvanKrosney

    I think what we really should be asking is “what took so long?”.

    • Darryl Friesen

      Why it took the industry so long, or why it took Google so long? I can see that something like this could take a couple of years of development to work out, which is about how long Google has owned Motorola. Apple would never consider this idea, as they want you to spend $700+ every year on a new phone. But why not Samsung, or HTC (those guys are desperate for any kind of sale)? That’s an interesting question.

      I’d like to know a timeline. I’m ready to drop money on a Nexus 5 RIGHT NOW. If this was being released (very) soon, I’d seriously consider it.

    • Jason

      Because Samsung and HTC also would rather new phones being sold.

      Google wants the ongoing relationship, and if retaining your existing phone which can handle hardware upgrades achieves this, then it is better for them.
      By doing this Google reduces the need to change phone when you upgrade, which reduces the risk that some Android phone owner will switch to a non-Google phone.

  • ShadowFist23

    I was keen on PhoneBloks, so this is really cool news. I loved my last phone and didn’t want to change it, but the processor and memory was just too far behind. If I could have just upgraded that – awesome.

  • Xoroe

    Isn’t this the very same thing as Phone Bloks, the viral video that came out months ago?

    • egsfgfgdg

      thanks for reading

    • LexJ

      Yes, they’re working with the guy who created PhoneBloks.

    • Jesse Laurin

      try reading the article before posting

    • Shane Pucan

      It is. They said that Motorola is working with Dave Hakkens. (the creator of Phone Bloks)

  • williamsteven

    LOL! to Motorola I guess,man Google is really hitting the customizational point not only in software but even in hardware now @_@

  • egsfgfgdg

    this could technically make every phone look the same, minus some size differences/colors. might as well buy an iphone.
    while being able to replace different parts of your phone seems good, i doubt the manufacturers will reduce the pricing, even though it will simplify their manufacturing process a lot.

  • egsfgfgdg

    send it to me and i will mail you the phone when it is ready

    • Liberal Phone Person

      Oh you

  • monsterduc1000

    Love this Idea!!!…if the price of the upgrades is reasonable.

  • Mohan Krishna

    I have been waiting for long time for manufacturers to make hardware upgradeable Mobiles …good work google!!!!!!1

  • Dkallkck

    Like it.

  • FANDROID?

    you know what this means? goodbye apple.

    • monsterduc1000

      I doubt it. They will just bring out an upgradeable hype-phone a year later or so and then sue Moto and PhoneBloks for copyright infringment on a product idea they stole from someone else. The court case will be in Cupertino, Apple’s back yard, where it will be the only place in the world they win, but everywhere else they will be told to “GO SUCK IT!!!” :)

    • Netguru

      Agreed…but in Apple’s implementation, a user won’t be able to d-i-y and will have to go to the Genius Bar and pay Apple’s exorbitant prices.

    • sillybus

      Unfortunately, apple fans are not gonna be interested because they are not intellectually capable of assembling these. They prefer to have whatever Cook & Co. dare to shove down their throat in a sleek package.

    • HelloCDN

      Or, or, and take a moment to comprehend it, may be eat a Kit Kat, – they are actually busy doing their business and real life stuff than playing with toys?
      I know for someone like you spending your every day playing with tech it’s hard to understand, but a lot – a lot – of people buy tech to use it as a tool, not to play with it.

    • sillybus

      In that case, you enjoy your butter knife, and I will have fun with my swiss army knife. It’s a great tool.

    • HelloCDN

      Perhaps you should be a little less arrogant, my friend. Being involved in tech doesn’t make you any superior to others.

    • Jim – Rogers Rep

      I doubt that, iPhone users value their iPhones for an entirely separate set of features than an android user does, namely simplicity.
      This will just over-complicate things further than they are already, it is important to note that customization is not something that everyone cares about.

      All of that said with any luck this is a positive step forward for Google/Motorola and I look forward to seeing these in the wild.

    • bluecanada

      Won’t mean “goodbye Apple”. Apple offers an integrated experience that is controlled in many ways; Android offers openness and customizability.

      This is the next step for an Android experience, and a very good one that many will welcome. Apple’s phone brand is for something else entirely.

  • DubbingHammer

    Finally I can own the frankenphone of my own !!!

  • Zed

    Finally, some tangible innovation. Hope it works out

  • Zee

    Am I the only person who thinks this looks like crap? I mean aesthetically the blocky back looks weird.

    • eszklar

      Put in in a case then?

  • J-Ro

    Leave it to Google to take what I thought was the most innovative concept for phones and make it main stream.

    I can’t wait to see where this goes.

  • Stephen_81

    Great concept, but I don’t think it will ever fly.
    Smartphones like PC’s have become commodities. manufacturing each little block will ad costs, look back in the early 2000’s at the difference in price between and OEM and a Retail intel chip. same chip, one was sold to builders, one was sold retail. the price difference was huge.

    Each company will need to make their margins, each component will be more expensive since it will be the tech + casing+ packaging + connectors.

    add to that how much thicker and heavier the device would be compared to current devices I see this as a hobby toy that doesn’t really take off, I can’t see how it can be a successful product. PC builders toyed with encased cartridge components in the early 2000’s to make PC building easier and upgrading easier for the masses. it never took off.

    • BaconTroll

      Agreed for the moment, but just like everything else. Things get cheaper, they get smaller and they get more powerful. Initially this will be more for DIY people, but I see this more for future where you see more of a Dell-like configuration system for your phone, with healthy “mechanic” industry to help “upgrade” your favorite phone.

    • Stephen_81

      I could see a more Dell like configuration where a manufacturer allows you to order a completed device. but this modular idea is where I am saying it is a no go.
      While device components get thicker there hasn’t been a major breakthrough in stability of thin plastics/metals of which there will have to be extra layers for these components each to be encased,

    • BaconTroll

      Actually I think we will continue to get that shell stuff going. There is some interesting work on carbyne, which looks like it has the possibility of being stronger than diamond and still have some flexibility to it. This of course is assuming they can make in commercially viable. So as all things move forward, things change. I am still waiting for them to get quantum entanglement down so I never have to worry about cellphone reception again.

  • rtg_500

    Hopefully this turns out to be more than just a concept, lot of e-waste can be reduced if people kept their smartphones longer than 1-2 years. Although selling this idea to people that are used to buying new phones every year is going to be a much tougher challenge.

    • Andrew_notPorC

      The problem remains that these modular devices are pretty much necessarily going to be ticker and heavier than fully integrated devices.

    • rtg_500

      I think this will be true for first generation devices , but if more manufacturers get on board the weight and thickness will be reduced significantly.

    • egsfgfgdg

      it still wont be as light as as thin as full phones. due to each module having its own casing.

    • rtg_500

      I agree that the phones wont be as thin as current smartphones but not everyone is obsessed with super thin phones. What the bigger problem is convincing casual cellphone users that building your own phone is cool, apple would probably be the only company that could pull this off currently , since a lot of people follow them almost religiously.

    • Andrew_notPorC

      I don’t know how you think they’ll get around the problem of having a case around each component plus a chassis that acts as a power/data bus. If you get rid of all the cases, you get the same hardware in a smaller, lighter, probably stronger package. A modular phone is going to be a compromise in terms of size/performance for any given level of technology. Think macbook air (not that I like apple products) vs a desktop computer. The latter is modular, but bigger and heavier.

    • egsfgfgdg

      oooo imagine dropping this thing and watching all your modules fly off! itll be like easter egg hunting!

    • Stephen_81

      The push for the CRTC to reduce contracts to 2 years is a push to make people upgrade more often. even if this becomes an option even myself who has all the capabilities to build my machines I buy a new laptop every 18 months instead of upgrading. Phones will be the same.

      Buying piece by piece will be more expensive than buying a completed system as the components will obviously be retail packaged for distribution and not OEM like PC hardware components.

      Any reduced electronic waste will see an uptake in EOL’d components and packaging waste

    • rtg_500

      Why cant they manufacturer two components together, as in a speaker and a camera, or bluetooth and wifi module together…. This will surely reduce packaging waste. Some components wont need to be changed as often as lets say the cpu.

    • Stephen_81

      While I am sure some makers will do that,
      What you will see is lots of components made to trial and see what people will buy.

      Lets say there are these items only in a phone after your large screen and mainboard.
      Camera, Speaker, Radios, Processor, Battery, Storage.

      Each device will have to be packaged in a package similar to that of a MicroSD card approx 4″x5″ cardboard with bubble packaging

      You’ll have different qualities of each of these items, Premium Brands, whitebox brands, High spec, medium spec, low spec.

      Each of these needs a sku, and floorspace which ads to the costs associated with the products and each combination of any of them will also need their own sku’s more sku’s results in greater waste and greater product for EOL.

      Phones package all that together, more calculated risks are taken in what parts are put out for consumption because the cost to do so is much greater that is gone when you launch low cost components for mass adoption AND they are in a market with fast advancement.

    • rtg_500

      All of what you stated is true, however I feel like once a specific standard has been established for these components, it will significantly reduce manufacturing or packaging waste. But if there is no specific standard than this whole modular phone thing will get out of control and create way more waste than conventional phone making as you have pointed out.

    • Stephen_81

      standardized packaging actually creates more waste.

      Often you use far more packaging than needed because it is cheaper to have a single size packaing, I had an product line with many various shapes/sizes we used the same box for almost all of them because it was more cost effective to order 10,000 medium boxes than 4000 small, 5000 medium and 1000 large. the packaging material resulted in much more waste for costs.

      The SD card industry is something to look at for obscene amount of packaging to product size, this component industry would be the same.

      I like this modular idea as a hobbyist. but to think the ideals that it would result in less waste or lower consumer costs is idealistic from Engineers who’ve never actually been in the manufacturing & distribution of retail products. SO MUCH is wasted / thrown away the more sku’s the more waste.

    • rtg_500

      You are correct in regards to packaging waste , as I have ordered sd cards of amazon only to come in a huge cardboard packaging which was totally unnecessary. But don’t you think the manufacturing process will see any reduction of waste if a standard on components is agreed on? Also people are more likely to pay for genuine parts where they recognize the brand and they know what they are getting , than buy cheaper knock offs, unless off course the quality of the cheaper parts matches that of genuine parts.

    • Stephen_81

      I’ve yet to find an industry that standardizes across the board. but the reduction in manufacturing process MIGHT come from the forming of the shells since the shells should be more or less the same until the mainboard is no longer suitable for the advancement of all the components. so that will follow the Apple like nature of the phones all having the same shape. but hopefully not the wasteful milling process of the aluminum shells.

      As for people more likely to pay for premium. Go into a Mechanics shop, Go into Walmart, Check the components in retail PC’s and you’ll see people shop more on price than they do on quality.

      Products like DeWalt drills have different levels of quality based on the store you go onto to buy it because of the pricepoints that need to be reached, people look at the name, but they still have a pricepoint in mind, Whitebox and off label products will be competing with the premium ones every day creating far more duplication than that of full devices, WHICH will continue to sell along side these.

  • Me Ted

    This is fantastic! i might just hold off on the N5 to see where this goes. Well done Google/Motorola!

    • Stephen_81

      Agreed. It will take a year or MORE.

      IF you follow Qualcomm and their CEO he talks about 2 years for component development and then another year-2 for device makers to put them to use.

      With developer kits going out a company like Qualcomm will be working on it for at least a year before you they start shipping samples to people to make packages for these devices.

  • Samuel Gomez Recuero

    I welcome the idea, but stil wonder how this will play out for the OEMs. Will all camera modules be built the same way so to fit the new form factor? Will each OEM provide deifferent templates (this will affect the look of the phone) but conform to standards so I can get the camera from sony but the CPU from samsung? Too many questions that will still need to be considered.

  • Linker

    Imagine the possibility of customized accessory blocks. A rolled-up stylus? A few customizable buttons (remember Pressy) ? A sensor collection for health or sports purposes, or even a Swiss knife. How cool is it if you can switch those on one phone?

  • Nadefrenzy

    As a very savvy computer hardware enthusiast.. this is a DREAM COME TRUE!

    Replaceable parts? Upgrading your smartphone? Damn!

  • AKDISQUS

    This is what the moto X rumors were leading which ended up with disappointment.

  • HelloCDN

    This is actually a great idea, specifically for people working professionally in IT industry.
    However, I can’t see it succeed in mass or business markets.

  • sillybus

    It was obviously a CHEAP ATTEMPT TO INSULT. Nothing more. Is this first time you have seen one?

    • Jim – Rogers Rep

      Maybe it’s time to stop insulting and time to start working to see what good there is coming forward from all companies so with any luck we can really make devices that appeal to humanity instead of to the person.
      as we continue to insult one-another based on software and hardware preferences we move no further ahead, and no closer to real options.

  • MaX Damage

    I came a little…

  • Dave Evans

    This all sounds very good on paper, and a bit of wishful thinking from all of us…..but I think that’s about as far as it goes.

  • thomas nguyen

    OMG, i just thought about the lonely island “jizz in my pants” as i read this

  • trickster_qc

    It will eventualy come to that, and motorola knows it. If they don’t do it, the chinese manufacturers will.

    Funny how most current phones don’t have a microsd slot and removable battery but they try to foresee the future with exchangeable parts…

  • Stuntman06

    I want the physical keyboard module!

  • Keegan

    I would switch from my WP for this.

  • Nico Suarez

    Only way this’ll mean anything is if Google pressures other phone manufacturers into joining some “Project Ara Consortium” that would standardize the buses and connectors and sizes for each block. Otherwise we’ll end up with a modular phone architecture without any available modules, like Openmoko.