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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Do People Want to Build Their Own Customizable Smartphone?

Motorola's idea for the ultimate smartphone looks more like a set of Legos that make up a smartphone.

The company announced on Monday that it was moving forward with an experimental phone called Project Ara, which it says is a modular smartphone platform.

The idea is a phone that looks like a set of blocks, with each one making up a component of the phone, including battery, camera, display and sensors. These can all be unplugged and easily replaced.

“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,” the company said in a blog post.

There's no indication when - or even if - this experimental phone will end up in the hands of regular consumers, but the company said it will offer a kit for developers this winter.

In a video accompanying the blog post, Motorola notes that if you break the screen of your Ara phone, you could easily unclip it and clip in a replacement. Almost like losing the keys to your house and replacing the door lock rather than the entire door.

But the phone has the ability to become a completely customizable gadget.

If someone wanted a smartphone with a better camera and less battery life, they could simply add a small battery component and a high-resolution camera to their particular smartphone. If someone else didn't want a camera on their phone, but they did want more battery life, they could remove and add those components. It's as easy as unplugging one and then plugging in another.

While the idea sounds exciting, it could also become a flop. A few years ago, a company called Bug Labs unveiled a new product that would allow people to build their own devices - digital cameras, baby monitors, motion detectors - in a similar, pluggable way, but while the company has found an audience with people customizing their cars and homes, mainstream consumers haven't flocked to the product yet.

In an interview with The New York Times in 2011, Peter Semmelhack, who founded Bug Labs, said that when the company unveiled its Bug in 2008 people were incredibly excited because it offered ”a new way of conceptualizing how to use electronics.” But, he also noted that on the flip side of that excitement there was a question that appeared afterwards: “What is it?”

Motorola will very likely come across the same problem Bug Labs had to contend with. To some, the idea of being able to customize a smartphone is exciting and appealing. But to others, the process of having to make decisions over camera size, battery power and other pluggable components could be too overwhelming.