Project Ara: The Phone That Lasts Forever?

phonebloksPhoto: Courtesy of Motorola.
Motorola has unveiled an ambitious new DIY phone concept that aims to do away with the disposability we've grown accustomed to in our mobile devices. Called Project Ara, the company's concept sounds simple enough: Make phones modular. Instead of tossing your phone in the trash when, for example, its Wi-Fi receiver stops working, you'll be able to just swap out the part instead. The whole phone would be upgradeable on a component-by-component basis. Those parts wouldn't even be limited to Motorola, either. Project Ara's open-source model allows third-party manufacturers to build compatible parts, too.
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"We want to do for hardware what the Android platform has done for software: to create a vibrant third-party developer ecosystem, lower the barriers to entry, increase the pace of innovation, and substantially compress development timelines," according to a company blog post.
It all starts with an "endo" — or exoskeleton — that serves as the base for the phone. It will hold all of the component parts, from batteries and keyboards to more specialized modules, like pulse oximeters. As those parts wear out, you can swap in new ones, ostensibly leading to less waste than junking an entire phone. According to The New York Times, Americans threw away 150 million cellphones in 2010 alone.
Motorola has partnered with Phonebloks — an online community devoted to developing modular, less wasteful phones — which shares the company's vision. Dave Hakkens, the creator of Phonebloks, created this video last month to explain the concept.
It's an exciting prospect, to be sure. The question, of course, is whether consumers will bite once this goes from concept to production. The idea of an upgradeable phone revives the old divide between true power users — the PC tinkerers who build a computer from scratch — and those who want a streamlined system that requires little to no interaction with a computer's complicated guts.
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Apple's MO since has almost always been to simplify its products — even to the point of locking consumers out. That's why you need specialized screwdriver heads to open up your MacBook Air or even replace the broken glass on your iPhone (and even then you'll void your warranty). Even now, the most Apple users can really do without breaking the rules, so to speak, is to upgrade their RAM or swap out an old battery in some but not all of Apple's devices. (That doesn't mean some of us aren't rule-breakers, though.)
The Ara concept, however, doesn't seem to require specialized knowledge on the user's part. If anything, the individual modules look to be just as contained as an Apple device. There are plenty of users who can't be bothered to even upgrade their operating system, let along a piece of outdated or malfunctioning hardware. But, if Ara truly does "lower the barriers to entry," it could find just the right amount of fans to get it off the ground, and maybe even create a paradigm shift in the process. (The Verge)
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