If Ara, Motorola’s version of the modular smartphone, sees the light of day, it will mean a marriage of cutting edge technologies, says Sooraj Rajmohan

The smartphone world is witnessing some interesting developments. Fingerprint recognition and infrared are making a return, processor power is going off the charts, phones are capable of bending and, if Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 805 processor is any indication, ultra high-definition 4K displays are on their way too. But while geeks will barely bat an eyelid at the ever increasing benchmark figures, the one development that has made the tech community sit up and take notice is ‘Phonebloks’, an idea for a modular smartphone.

Envisioned by Dutch designer Dave Hakkens, the idea was put forward through a video where he proposed a smartphone that allowed users to upgrade individual parts and skip others they don’t require. Enthusiasts who have enjoyed the same functionality on PCs for generations and disgruntled phone owners who found their hardware becoming obsolete months after their purchase loved the idea; the video went viral.

While most logical argument dismissed this as a dream too good to be true, it would appear there may be hope yet. Motorola has recently announced ‘Ara’, a project they claim to have been working on even before Hakkens’ video. Ara is Motorola’s version of the modular smartphone (though the renders are much better looking). Motorola has also invited Hakkens to share his ideas, and is coordinating with other companies to establish a framework and come out with components for the device. Being Google-owned, Motorola is perhaps in the best position to pull off something on this scale. The entire tech community has been waiting for something special to come out of the company’s acquisition by Google, and while the Moto X held promise, its limited availability did not do it any favour.

In another development of some interest, Motorola has recently tied up with 3D Systems, a 3D printing company, as a potential fulfilment partner in manufacturing the phone and its modules, making Project Ara (if it manages to reach a manufacturing phase) a marriage of cutting edge technologies.

Long-term impact

What impact does this development have in the long run? First, customers get to tailor their smartphone experience beyond software level, and therefore hold on to devices longer, upgrading as necessary. Manufacturers can opt to build modules rather than entire phones, giving buyers the choice to equip their phones with components from manufacturers they trust. And last, it can serve as a platform for 3D printing to finally move out of the fringes of the manufacturing industry.

Provided enough people get modular smartphones, e-waste is bound to come down, although some critics argue that upgrade enthusiasts may rapidly switch components thereby causing an increase instead.

Other potential roadblocks being cited include technical difficulties arising out of having multiple removable parts and high manufacturing costs if enough manufacturers do not join the programme.

There are quite a few reasons for Ara to still not see the light of day despite Hakkens’ and Motorola’s efforts, but if it does rise above the odds stacked against it, the results may just be surprising.

To know more about the modular smartphone concept, visit Phone Bloks and Project Ara.