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Are we ready for the modular smartphone?

Google’s latest “moonshot” project is a modular phone called Project Ara. Modular devices are not exactly a new technology, but here’s why a modular smartphone is important in this day and age.

Motorola Ara

Big companies can afford to lose money on experiments and projects. Take Apple and Google, for example, with their billions of dollars in cash under stockpile. It’s these firms that can afford to spend billions on so-called “moonshot” projects that may never see commercial application. Some may never even go past the drawing board.

One of Google’s latest moonshots is the modular smartphone, dubbed Project Ara (curiously, after one of the academia-based experts who are contributing to the project). Work on the modular device is done by the Motorola Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) group, which was retained by Google after its sale of Motorola Mobility to Lenovo. The project aims to build a modular smartphone, in which users can interchange parts depending on the functionality needed. More importantly, modular parts mean that a user can spend as little or as much money as necessary to build a phone with the features he wants or needs.

With Project Ara, a smart device will cost as little as $50 for a WiFi-enabled device with a touchscreen. Users can include additional modules as the need arises — camera, cellular module, additional batteries. The device will supposedly support hot-swappable modules, so users can swap out parts as needed, and these will be kept locked in place by electromagnetism.

Not exactly a new idea

Modular devices are not altogether new.  In late 2013, Netherlands-based Dave Hakkens launched an effort called Phonebloks, a crowd-funded project that aimed to create a modular smartphone. Motorola has since partnered with Phonebloks, and the latter’s site now serves as a community forum for enthusiasts. While Hakkens says he is platform-agnostic, Ara is perhaps one of the project that can succeed in this area, given its backers.

But let’s go back farther. Readers old enough may recall the late 1990s’ Handspring Visor. In what can now be considered an ancient era in mobile computing and telephone, PDAs of old likewise supported modular applications. The Handspring Visor was a basic device similar to Palm’s own offerings, but it supported add-on cartridges. These include a camera, gaming modules, and — get this — a cellular module.

It was more of a novelty than a necessity, and being able to support text messaging and some circuit-switched data on your mobile device was, back then, a fun and geeky thing to do for the tech savvy. But smartphones started to evolve into more integrated devices, which included the SIM-enabled Compaq iPaq, Nokia Communicator and Windows Mobile. It’s the iPhone’s launch in 2007 that resulted in a revolutionary device that was all-in: no modules, and not even a removable battery.

And so now, we marvel at big-screen flagship smartphones and tablets, but most of these devices are geared toward the mid-range and high-end, never mind the potential market for entry level devices, which reportedly comprise about 80 percent of the world. Do we relegate this market to feature phones and dumb phones that do not even have access to the Internet?

The next billion internet (and mobile) users

Companies like Facebook and Google are now gearing toward providing access to those an altogether new class of Internet user. With a majority of the world not having access to a desktop or notebook computer, mobile devices are the next frontier. What’s the best way to do this than through cheap devices that can be built by a multitude of manufacturers and brands?

To some extent, device manufacturers have been able to do this, by building atop the Android Open Source Project and selling tablets and smartphones for as cheap as $50. Most of these are clunky, low-spec’d devices that break easily and that have slow interfaces due to the poor quality of the components used. We need products that perform well and that will last. Will Project Ara be able to address this gap?

It’s great for both hackers and regular users

Another thing that Project Ara could address is the curiosity among us. Sure, we can buy cheap phones for fifty bucks, and that’s it. But with a modular smartphone, enterprising and innovative individuals and companies can build a vast array of accessories and add-ons, thereby again satisfying the geeks within us. Somehow, there’s no fun in playing the latest power-hungry games on a smartphone that you know has the specs to handle the software. But pushing a device to its limits — with both hardware add-ons and perhaps software tweaks — is the more interesting thing to do. Why? Because we can.

We’re already experimenting with custom ROMs. Why not custom hardware modules?

And for the rest of us who just want a reliable daily driver, a modular system means we can easily replace broken parts without having to service the entire phone. Broken screen? No problem: just replace it with a new module.

As an Android fan, I welcome Project Ara. With Android, we already have the software that lets us build apps and services layer atop a base OS. Ara will be the hardware counterpart, and I can already foresee manufacturers building modules for a “base” device.

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