Google's Motorola unveils Project Ara, focuses on customizing smartphone hardware

Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Motorola Mobile division unveiled Project Ara, an open-source program designed to bring modular smartphone design to the masses--in effect giving end users the ability to retrofit and continually customize the hardware of their smartphones.

The project is being spearheaded by the Motorola Advanced Technology and Projects group, the unit led by Regina Dugan, a former DARPA chief. Project Ara has been in the works for more than a year and its goal is audacious in the same way Google's Project Loon is for expanding Internet access via balloons: "How do we bring the benefits of an open hardware ecosystem to 6 billion people?"

"Project Ara is developing a free, open hardware platform for creating highly modular smartphones," the company wrote in a blog post. "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."

Source: Google

The core of Ara is an endoskeleton (endo) and modules. The endo is the structural frame that holds all the modules in place. A module can be anything from a new chipset, display, keyboard or sensor.

Source: Google

If that sounds a lot like Phonebloks, a similar venture unveiled in September, that's because Motorola recently met with Dave Hakkens, the creator of Phonebloks. The ventures "share a common vision: to develop a phone platform that is modular, open, customizable, and made for the entire world. We've done deep technical work. Dave created a community. The power of open requires both."

Project Ara will be working with the Phonebloks community throughout its development process as well as "Scouts" or volunteers who will be testing the concept. Motorola said in a few months it will also send an invitation to developers to start creating modules for the Ara platform (and may provide prizes). Motorola expects to have an alpha release of the Module Developer's Kit (MDK) sometime this winter.

Google touted the Moto X smartphone as "the first smartphone that you can design yourself," but via its Moto Maker studio that largely consists of cosmetic changes, such as the phone's back design and color, not its internal components. Project Ara promises to take that focus on customization to another level.

"Our goal is to drive a more thoughtful, expressive, and open relationship between users, developers, and their phones," Motorola said. "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."

Interestingly, Ara sounds surprisingly like the business plan from startup Modu, founded in 2007 by Dov Moran, inventor of the USB flash drive. Modu hoped to "rewrite the mobile landscape" by taking a modular approach to handset ownership--a definite reversal from the all-in-one strategy employed by most smartphone makers. However, Modu closed its doors early in 2011 and Google reportedly purchased the company's patents shortly thereafter.

For more:
- see this Motorola blog post
- see this The Verge article
- see this CNET article
- see this GigaOM article
- see this TIME article

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