Motorola’s modular smartphone will be the anti-iPhone

October 29, 2013

(Motorola)

Google owns Motorola. So it's no surprise that Motorola's latest smartphone idea draws inspiration from Google's Android operating system — and offers another foil to Apple's "closed" iOS.

Motorola's vision of the future smartphone is open source: The device's hardware will be customizable, and not just when you're buying it from the store. The company's Project Ara hopes to turn your phone into a physical platform. As with PCs, the device will be modular, meaning users can swap out components whenever they feel like it. Did you drop your phone and break the screen? Just replace the part that's damaged all by yourself. Want to take better pictures? Just unplug the camera and slip in a new one. The phone will automatically detect the new component and integrate it into the rest of the system.

In many ways, a completely modular phone would be the antithesis of the iPhone. Those iconic smartphones, by design, are not upgradable — at least, not unless you fork over several hundred dollars for a new one. Consumers can't easily take an iPhone apart and see what's inside, let alone install new parts themselves. All that mystery and secrecy makes the iPhone seem kind of magical -- and thus impenetrable to the average user.

Motorola's bet, however, is that consumers will appreciate a more accessible smartphone, one that users can tinker with and repair themselves without having to go to a Genius Bar or another company store for help. (That convenience could also inspire users to hold on to their devices longer, reducing e-waste and countering the trend in the device industry toward shorter and shorter product life-cycles.)

Motorola appears to be so convinced of the modular future that it's partnered with the Dutch designer Dave Hakkens, whose similar Phonebloks concept has won over nearly 1 million supporters. At 10 a.m. Eastern on Tuesday, Hakkens' Thunderclap will kick off, sending this video to some 378 million people on social media:

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecom, broadband and digital politics. Before joining the Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.
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Andrea Peterson · October 29, 2013