Last year I wrote about Phonebloks, an idea for creating customisable, upgradeable phones. There was a little video about how it would work, pressing the various elements into a backing plate, Lego-style. It’s a neat idea, and an environmentally friendly one too, as modular designs are much more repairable than sealed units like the iPhone. If one part breaks, you can just swap in a new component rather than having to replace the whole phone. This is no small problem – 1.5 billion mobile phones are currently thrown away every year.
Phonebloks was an online campaign, nothing more. There was just one guy behind it, with the aim of getting enough online attention to tell the mobile phone industry that this was something people wanted. Remarkably, it seems to have done the job. The video launched in September last year, and in October Motorola announced that they’d been giving some thought to this already, and they’d like to partner with Phonebloks to make it happen. The result is a modular phone research project, Project Ara. Motorola (now owned by Google) are bringing the tech, and Phonebloks are rallying a community of makers and designers.
What Project Ara is out to do is really quite ambitious – the plan is to create an open source hardware platform for mobile phones. Google has already provided the software in the form of Android. Ara would be a basic phone handset that anyone could then design components for – cameras, keyboards, speakers, whatever you require from your phone. “We want to do for hardware what the Android platform has done for software” said Motorola, “create a vibrant third-party developer ecosystem, lower the barriers to entry, increase the pace of innovation, and substantially compress development timelines.”
They’re not the only ones spotting the opportunity. ZTE displayed a concept modular phone called the Eco-Mobius in Las Vegas last week. It might not work – there have been brief and unsuccessful modular phone experiments in the past, but perhaps the time is right for this one. If it keeps a few million phones a year off the scrapheap, it’ll be well worthwhile.