The notion of the modular smartphone is an enticing one: A phone with replaceable parts so users can customize the device for their needs. Designing a device to include more battery power or less storage, for examples, would essentially free the user from the current, only type of smartphone available: the one that has all of its capabilities permanently built in. Google is stepping up to the plate on the modular smartphone front, having launched Project Ara under its Motorola brand to explore bringing a modular device to market. The company is getting more serious about doing so, and has announced it will host developer conferences devoted to the idea.
VISUAL CONTEXT: THE U.S. SMARTPHONE MARKET
Project Ara introduces the idea of open hardware: the concept of creating a gadget with customizable features so that both user and developer can adjust and create a unique piece of hardware. The concept is much like the one of open source software in that a basic platform is created off of which others may design and implement new features and capabilities. Project Ara is headed up by Motorola’s Advanced Technology and Projects group. In an initial explanation of the launch of the project in October 2013, the company wrote:
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. 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 theory that mechanical devices are built to stop functioning well due to wear after a certain period of time is called “planned obsolescence” and is a popular notion embraced by many who have extended it to other electronic-based devices and machines. Many believe companies like Apple purposefully time the beginning of a device’s defunction in order to ensure customers buy new versions of the product. A modular smartphone would turn this idea on its head.
Of course, a real modular smartphone that appeals to the general public is still far in the future, despite TIME’s report that Google will release a device in the first quarter of 2015 as the initial device will not have many of the capabilities of a typical high-end smartphone. The toss-up for users will be weighing whether it is more worth it to own a device with fewer capabilities at its outset, in the hopes that eventually they will be able to improve upon its initial functionality. As the first of three developer conferences that Google will host on modular smartphones launches in April, the concept is likely to reach more ears.