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Can Motorola Revolutionize the Smartphone?


Motorola is exploring the development of modular, customizable phones.


Here's a crazy idea.

What if smartphones were fully customizable? Rather than depend on the whims and bottom lines of a manufacturer, consumers were able to pick and choose which features their device would have. Heavy users with long commutes could have bigger batteries. Shutterbugs could choose a bigger camera. And every part of the phone would be modular: The screen, the processor, the storage, the GPS, the speaker, basically everything can be hooked up separately and swapped out if one of them should malfunction. After all, we don't replace our entire car when we get a flat tire, right?

Well, this crazy idea morphed into Phonebloks, a pipe dream concept by Dave Hakkens wherein users can create their own phones with a series of Lego-like parts. The idea was laid out in a video which debuted in September and went on to garner over 17 million views. Folks were clearly intrigued and soon clamored for the device.

However, it was just an idea. Hakkens didn't have the funds or the means to develop such a device for the masses on his own. He needed the backing of a large manufacturer, preferably with a sizable user base, to get the ball rolling and see if a modular phone would be feasible.

Fortunately, we may soon see a Phonebloks device on the market thanks to Motorola (NASDAQ:GOOG).

The Google arm has just announced Project Ara, a modular phone concept with a free, open hardware platform much in the same vein as Hakkens' Phonebloks idea. In Motorola's words, "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."

Or put simply: Take the idea that millions of tech users were excited by and bring it to fruition.

Motorola said it will be releasing a Project Ara developer's kit "sometime this winter," which is a very promising start. But we're still too early into the concept to see if it's at all viable for consumers -- and the manufacturer -- no matter how enthusiastic the response has been so far.

Because there are pretty big obstacles along the way.

While a modular design may sound good on paper, the inner workings of a smartphone are based on critical parts, placement, and design all finely tuned to work together. Things like the processor and RAM are combined onto one CPU chip so that performance is maximized in such a small place. Reconfiguring unoptimized, swappable parts -- possibly made by different third-party manufacturers -- could lead to a dip in speed and reliability. And given the number of possible combinations between modules and placement, it would be difficult to test and refine every single "phone" that a consumer might configure.

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