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Motorola's Wonderphone May Not Be a Pipe Dream


Even with numerous obstacles in place, Motorola CEO Dennis Woodside believes a modular smartphone is coming.

There's something to be said about a concept that garners 18.4 million views on YouTube.

Back in September, Dave Hakkens had analysts and tech geeks slobbering over a modular smartphone concept. Dubbed Phonebloks, the theoretical design employed different hardware components of a smartphone -- the CPU, the camera, the storage, the battery, etc. -- to be completely swappable and work together in an upgradeable form factor kit. This would allow users to improve the specs of their devices without having to shell out hundreds of bucks for an entirely new phone.

But as fantastic as the concept was, Hakkens had no means to deliver such a device to the masses without the backing of one or more major smartphone players. Fortunately, Motorola (NASDAQ:GOOG) was already pursuing the idea, nicknamed Project Ara, and hoped to make the modular device a reality. The problem is -- and there's many more than one -- a modular smartphone is a logistical nightmare to mass produce, even for a company owned by Google. (See: Can Motorola Revolutionize the Smartphone?)

Manufacturers would have to ensure that separate components, likely designed by different third parties, would work together as perfectly as if it had been finely tuned and optimized as a whole. There's the cost of each fully contained part to consider, which could possibly be more expensive than the barebones components soldered into place at the factory. There's also the dip in profits for manufacturers and carriers, who won't see customers hastily buying a new smartphone when a better camera or longer-lasting battery enters the mix. And any company that delivers a modular smartphone is likely going to be relegated to Google's or Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) mobile OS, leaving Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) fans without an option.

Nevertheless, Motorola CEO Dennis Woodside is confident that Project Ara is a workable concept and said in an interview last week that a modular smartphone is a natural progression from what the company is delivering today.

In a video conference with YouTube personality and tech wunderkind Marques Brownlee, Woodside said he sees Project Ara as the next phase for Moto Maker, an online customization tool that lets users pick and choose the many different looks of the flagship Moto X phone.

"Moto Maker was the beginning of a much more exciting and longer-term story," Woodside said. "Ara is much further out, but you can see how those two things tie together, and how as we introduce new materials into Moto Maker, we're gonna pursue that theme across our product line going forward."

Woodside added that the company is interested in extending the customizing functionality of Moto Maker to a device's internals and "that's where Project Ara and Moto Maker may converge."

The Motorola CEO told Brownlee that company has already developed a Project Ara prototype that's "pretty close" to the final product the team envisioned. From Woodside's description, it's also very similar to the functionality that Dave Hakkens conceptualized in his viral video back in December.

"The idea is you have a skeleton that holds together a set of components and the components slide in and out," Woodside said. "If we have the interfaces and the protocols that enable the speaker to speak directly to the CPU, then this would all be possible."

But all the interfaces and protocols are tough to unify under a single language, and confidence doesn't trump logistics in tackling all the problems with a modular phone. Woodside doesn't yet have a timeframe for when Project Ara could become a reality. "Will we have a product in the next 12 months? It's hard to say."

Still, it's encouraging to hear that a company -- one that's just delivered two fantastic high-end and low-end smartphones -- is on board with the modular smartphone concept and is working toward meeting the high expectations we all had when we first saw the Phonebloks video. In a technological landscape where users are discouraged to root or jailbreak their smartphones and true ownership falls into a gray area, consumers feeling a greater sense of title and control over their own devices would be a step in the right direction.

See also

Why Netflix Won't Take Over the World at $7.99 Per Month

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Why Drones Are Not a Pie-in-the-Sky Investing Opportunity

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