Motorola's modular smartphone, Project Ara, unveiled

A smartphone that can be completely customized – with different displays, keyboards or measurement gadgets – may soon be available from Google-owned Motorola.

Company will work with Phonebloks, a popular social media campaign for a modular phone

Project Ara originated with Motorola. It originally included a frame that could be fitted with modules, ranging from displays to extra batteries to a device for taking your pulse. Modular smartphones have generated great enthusiasm in the tech community for their potential to prolong the lifespan of a device and reduce electronic waste. (Motorola)

A smartphone that can be completely customized – with different displays, keyboards or measurement gadgets – may soon be available from Google-owned Motorola.

“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,” said a company blog post announcing Project Ara Monday.

The project team, working for a year, has developed a frame, described as an “endoskeleton,” that can be fitted with modules, ranging from basic features such as displays, to extra batteries to specialized gadgets such as a device for taking your pulse.

Motorola hopes that third-party developers will dream up interesting modules for the device.

“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,” wrote Paul Eremenko on behalf of the Project Ara team.

The company said it plans to release a module developer’s kit this winter.

Motorola also announced it will be working with Dave Hakkens, a Dutch designer who has been trying to popularize the concept of a modular phone with a highly successful social media campaign called Phonebloks.

Hakkens was concerned about the number of electronic devices being thrown away, often when only a single component stops working. He envisioned a phone made of detachable blocks, parts that could be individually upgraded.

He created a video and a campaign on the social media site Thunderclap in September to demonstrate public support for the concept and to get companies and developers interested in his idea. As of Tuesday, the campaign had nearly a million supporters and an estimated social reach of 382 million people via the supporters’ Twitter and Facebook followers.

A video posted on the Phonebloks site, said the Phonebloks project talked to many interested companies about the concept, including Microsoft-owned  Nokia, Intel and Philips before deciding to work with Motorola. It added that Motorola will be tapping the Phonebloks community for “suggestions, ideas and what we want from a new kind of phone.” However, it said Phonebloks wants to remain independent of Motorola’s funding, and is therefore asking for donations to support an online discussion forum.

Google completed its purchase of Motorola Mobility for $12.5 billion US in 2012.


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