back to article Moto sets out plans for crafty snap-together PODULAR PHONES

Google-owned Motorola Mobility hopes to shake up the smartphone world with its freshly announced Project Ara: an open platform for modular snap-together handsets. Project Ara - swappable hardware mobile Project Ara ... swappable mobile hardware parts Googorola plans to work with the Phonebloks project on the open-source …

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  1. FartingHippo

    BAD idea

    Imagine dropping one of those buggers in a busy pub. 30 fiddly little parts scattered across the floor.

    Train platform droppage: also bad.

    1. thesykes

      Re: BAD idea

      You could always put it in a case.

      1. vagabondo

        Re: BAD idea

        > You could always put it in a case

        Gaffer Tape?

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: BAD idea

        It's already going to be much bigger than a normal phone - I'd like to see the point but in reality most phones have quite a hard life so after 18 months (Android) or 3-4 years (iPhone) they are probably reaching the end of their useful lives.

    2. S4qFBxkFFg

      Re: BAD idea

      I'd hope/expect there's going to be some sort of locking mechanism in the design, at least several manufacturers have figured out how to stop battery covers popping off.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Stop

      Re: BAD idea

      "Imagine dropping one of those buggers in a busy pub. 30 fiddly little parts scattered across the floor.

      Train platform droppage: also bad."

      What's the difference compared with the old feature phones that after a drop? And what happens to a shiny last generation smartphone after the accidents you described?

      I leave here the video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oDAw7vW7H0c#t=54 about the lock of the block, minute 0:54

    4. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge
      Pint

      Re: BAD idea

      Imagine dropping one of those buggers in a busy pub.

      That'll teach you to use your phone in a pub. That's not what pubs are for, you know.

      1. Dave 126 Silver badge

        Re: BAD idea

        The video shows the pins have a cut-away... after assembling your phone LEGO-style, you turn a screw in the base that locks them in.

        Still, all those pins and that mechanisms is going to add to the total weight.

        1. Cliff

          Re: BAD idea

          Brilliant idea, clearly just at v0.5, but upgradeable, no sending the whole phone away for a dicky compass, just swap a part out.

          Only problem will be to make it snaptogetherable will be size, the component enclosures will make it physically larger than a Samsung miniaturised device.

          1. Lusty

            Re: BAD idea

            "Brilliant idea, clearly just at v0.5, but upgradeable"

            Yeah genius. Just at the time the whole industry is moving away from this sort of thing. PCs are dying on their ass and laptops are getting so small there's no room for even a DIMM module. I agree that lots of geeks like this sort of thing, and the downvotes I'll get for this will prove that Reg readers think this is a winner. A good business model though? I really strongly doubt it.

        2. Michael H.F. Wilkinson
          Joke

          Re: LEGO-style

          Maybe it should be branded LEGOrola?

    5. Anonymous John

      Re:30 fiddly little parts scattered

      Pingfuckits as they are commonly known.

      1. Simon Harris
        Happy

        Re: Re:30 fiddly little parts scattered - @Anonymous John

        "Pingfuckits" ... upvoted for word of the day!

        Will have to drop something complicated now just so I can work it into a conversion!

    6. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: BAD idea

      Some assembly required.

    7. Geoff Campbell
      Facepalm

      Re: BAD idea

      You could always try not dropping it.

      I mean, quite a radical suggestion, I know, and apparently flies in the face of modern sentiment, but I do rather like to take care of fragile devices I have paid hundreds of pounds for.

      GJC

      1. Peter2 Silver badge

        Re: BAD idea

        I think it's a generational thing. The generations who grew up in the 80's or earlier didn't have insane amounts of toys and other expensive stuff so we took care of them carefully.

        There appears to be a trend heading towards "just buy another one" that shows up more and more the younger people get.

        1. Martin Taylor 1

          Re: BAD idea

          @Peter2: It's not *them* getting *younger*, you know...

      2. Dave 126 Silver badge

        Re: BAD idea

        C'mon Mr Campbell

        There are people with restricted use of their hands through arthritis, just as there are people have less motor control of their hands for a variety of reasons, some with less strength in their fingers.

        Even if your phone never slips from your fingers, you might trip and fall down... in which case you would want to be able to call for help even if you've fallen on your phone in your pocket. (I do hope you don't fall over!)

        Other people have young children who might drop a phone onto the ground.

        Personal experience does have a place in product design, but taking the experience of others into account can often result in the better product.

        1. Geoff Campbell

          Re: BAD idea

          Yeah, sure, phones do occasionally hit the ground for unavoidable and explainable reasons. But in the huge, huge majority of cases, the reason is "User is a blithering idiot who has their attention elsewhere than what they are doing with a £500 electronic device". This I find hard to understand, and I find it even harder to understand that those who do regularly drop their phones always have an excuse ready. So they shell out lots of money for a new phone, and do it all over again, because they have lied to themselves about why it happened.

          I think I have finally made this point stick with my eldest daughter, simply by ensuring that she pays for her own phones, and pointing out how much time she has taken to earn the money to do so. We'll see how long her new one lasts.

          GJC

    8. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: BAD idea

      Imagine dropping one of these in a meeting full of women.

      Sorry, wrong thread.

    9. naw

      Re: BAD idea

      How will dropping a (relatively delicate bundle of electronics and glass) onto a hard surface ever going to end well? I'd rather have half a dozen components that need re-assembly than one big broken component that needs binning.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: BAD idea @naw

        " I'd rather have half a dozen components that need re-assembly than one big broken component that needs binning."

        Why do you assume that the energy dissipated by hitting the floor fast will be solely expended in neat dis-assembly? There's a strong chance that however the phone is made the glass screen and digitiser will be ****ed by the P1 percussive forces from being dropped. And there's no reason to believe that the other modular components will be sufficiently strongly engineered to resist impact damage. In my experience things like locating lugs are more likely to break than to unclip gracefully when dropped, and it isn't the soldered on or SoC integrated components that get mangled by a fall anyway.

  2. dogged

    Those blue ones look a lot like Lumias.

  3. S4qFBxkFFg
    Go

    This looks like Google taking a run up, with a view to planting a hefty kick in the (other) phone companies' collective testiclesmargins.

    After all, it's probably to Google's benefit if its users can save money on phone replacements by having the option to upgrade only certain components (so as to leave more left over to buy apps, movies, music, and whatever Google advertises at them).

    I (forlornly?) hope it works, I'd like to be able to build my phones the same way I build my desktops.

    1. M Gale

      Not just phones. Leave the 3G/4G or other radio chipsets out, and you've got a (hopefully cut price) Android powered iPod.

      Maybe there could be options for D pads and button modules? Screen in the middle, D pad on left, buttons on right, instant handheld games console. Swap the D pad and buttons around if you're southpaw (or just like it that way).

      Bloody big camera lense on back, screen on front, sack everything else off asides an SD card module, and you have yourself a "smart" camera.

      This could really be an awesome development.

      1. Neil Charles

        Spot on

        My first thought was that this could extend well beyond phones. Or bring phones into new areas, whichever way you want to look at it.

        As an example, the free flying community (Hang gliders etc.) use free software called XCSoar on Android for maps and airspace avoidance. Swap in proper altimeter and variometer modules and you're properly in business with a real flight instrument. It would be too big to be a regular phone then but who cares? That's not the point. There must be hundreds of specialist fields where a smartphone almost but not quite does the job you want.

        This could be more versatile than a Raspberry Pi and without all the wires hanging out and Heath Robinson cases. Really hope they can get it to market.

      2. ecofeco Silver badge

        I'm with you M Gale.

        Damn good idea for many reasons, not the least of which is escaping the mfgs walled gardens.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      "This looks like Google taking a run up, with a view to planting a hefty kick in the (other) phone companies' collective testiclesmargins."

      If they run Android, I'm sure Microsoft will be rubbing their lawyers together with glee....

      1. Euripides Pants
        Unhappy

        Re: rubbing their lawyers together with glee....

        That is a disgusting mental picture!

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: rubbing their lawyers together with glee....

          "That is a disgusting mental picture!"

          Not if they catch fire it isn't ..

          1. Euripides Pants
            Pint

            Re: Not if they catch fire it isn't ..

            Upvote for that mental pic. Have one of these too ---->

    3. Oh Homer
      Linux

      Open "Source"?

      The concept? Love it. A lot. However, I think they mean "open design" or possibly "open engineering", but this has nothing to do with "open source".

      The only caveat, that I care about anyway, is that if the drivers aren't as open as the design then they can stuff it.

      On the other hand, given that each component is interchangeable, that presents the opportunity for smaller, less monopolistic companies (or even hobbyists) to offer alternative modules unafflicted by the cancer of "IP".

  4. Simon Rockman

    Wow the scope for finger pointing when it doesn't work..

    When the wifi on my Lumia stopped working on the Underground

    Nokia said it was a Virgin Wifi problem

    Virgin said to contact my service provider, after all that's who I pay the bill to.

    Vodafone (for it was them) said it was a Nokia problem.

    With an "open source" phone I can see nothing but problems.

    Of course it's not the first time Motorola has been here (and given up)

    1. M Gale

      Re: Wow the scope for finger pointing when it doesn't work..

      Lumia?

      What on Earth does Microsoft have to do with open source? And what does that dongle linked to, from 2004, have to do with Phonebloks? Bit of a Chewbacca argument really.

      And why are you trying to get wifi in a tunnel under the ground?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Wow the scope for finger pointing when it doesn't work..

        "What on Earth does Microsoft have to do with open source? "

        Quite a lot actually. Microsoft made loads of contributions to Linux for instance.

        Windows Server is also the most scalable NFS 4.1 server on the market with the best clustering features....

        1. M Gale

          Re: Wow the scope for finger pointing when it doesn't work..

          Quite a lot actually. Microsoft made loads of contributions to Linux for instance.

          The most significant contribution I've heard of Microsoft dishing out to the Linux kernel has been something about Hyper V.

          This wasn't through choice. This was through Microsoft breaking the terms of the GPL, being found out, and being told that they either cease to distribute their code forthwith, or release it as GPL, as per the terms of the code they half-inched. They then painted this as an exercise in generosity, rather than the truth of being caught with their pants down.

          All while continuing to threaten anybody daring to use the toy Unix without paying them a tax over dodgy patents that they still won't disclose, and which still haven't been properly examined (because they haven't been disclosed). This is without getting into the ethics of even allowing software patents in the first place.

          I'll ask again: What does Microsoft have to do with Open Source?

        2. Richard Plinston

          Re: Wow the scope for finger pointing when it doesn't work..

          > Quite a lot actually. Microsoft made loads of contributions to Linux for instance.

          No. You are wrong again. Microsoft made _one_ set of 'contributions' which were entirely related to supporting their virtual machines.

          > Windows Server is also the most scalable NFS 4.1 server on the market with the best clustering features....

          That is just marketing crap.

      2. AbortRetryFail

        Re: Wow the scope for finger pointing when it doesn't work..

        > And why are you trying to get wifi in a tunnel under the ground?

        Because Virgin offer wi-fi on the Underground.

        Next question?

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Like this idea - cant help but think its a bit raspberry pi like. Just hope its priced appropriately like the Pi as well.

    1. M Gale

      I think the idea is it's priced up to however many modules you want.

      I thought this was a damned smart idea when I saw the kickstarter, and I still do. As far as locking mechanisms go, this was solved a long while ago with the ZIF socket, no?

      1. Vector

        @M Gale

        "As far as locking mechanisms go, this was solved a long while ago with the ZIF socket, no?"

        No. ZIF sockets clamp the pins into the socket, but they don't lock them in. Using ZIF in this context could still result in the modules popping off if the device were dropped. You need a ball or flange of some sort at the end of the pins, which the phoneblok's design has. How secure that will be remains to be seen.

        I really like this concept on so many levels, but I'm afraid that primarily because I'm a geeky, built your own kinda guy. I'm not sure there is enough market out there to support this, since most people just want a phone.

  6. Steve Todd

    So Motorola want to build a large, clunky phone

    Take a look at a desktop vs a laptop. The desktop is designed to take standard modules, so there is lots of empty air in there to allow for them, copious air flow, standard connectors etc. The laptop on the other hand has few user replaceable parts (mostly memory and disk, and not always all of those), but is engineered for small size and long battery life.

    In a world where smaller, lighter and faster are important selling points I really can't see this doing well.

    1. Steve Knox

      Re: So Motorola want to build a large, clunky phone

      Bad analogy. The only reason most desktops are as huge as they are is because of slavish attention to backwards compatibility. Plus, you can built very compact desktops from off-the-shelf parts (mostly borrowed from laptops, in fact) nowadays.

      This will depend on making the modules small and standardizing on size and shape, though...

    2. Richard Plinston

      Re: So Motorola want to build a large, clunky phone

      >The laptop on the other hand has few user replaceable parts (mostly memory and disk, and not always all of those)

      In the 90s I had a TI laptop that had a plug in DVD that could be swapped with a floppy drive. The disk was in a slide out tray and could be swapped, additional trays could be bought. The RAM was swappable. The battery could be changed, and it also had PCMI card slots for network, USB, WiFi, modem, etc.

  7. Robin

    Good Idea, However...

    Nice idea for things which are already fairly self-contained, such as a battery or camera.

    However, how would it work in terms of making things like memory (one obvious candidate) swappable? What's the side-effect of changing all of those pins you'd normally get on a memory chip, into something that would work on 4/5 pins (from what I can see in the image).

    Genuinely interested in technology terms, but not sure I'd buy one. For the same reason I don't particularly want to fiddle around with my car or laptop.

    1. NumptyScrub

      Re: Good Idea, However...

      quote: "However, how would it work in terms of making things like memory (one obvious candidate) swappable? What's the side-effect of changing all of those pins you'd normally get on a memory chip, into something that would work on 4/5 pins (from what I can see in the image)."

      Serialisation of a parallel bus works fine, you just need a step up in clock speed equal to the decrease in lines to achieve a similar throughput (see SATA vs PATA etc.). If these are running a serial bus similar in speed to USB 3.0 or SATA 3 (5Gb / 6Gb) between components then there's a reasonable amount of bandwidth available, current SATA 3 SSDs don't manage to saturate the bus yet ;)

      Some stuff will still benefit from parallel access (especially RAM <-> CPU transfers) but most other components (screen, non-volatile storage, radio) already tend to use serial buses anyway. I suspect they'll end up putting the CPU and RAM into the same package and serialise the rest, or just live with the bottleneck of a serial RAM interface.

      I'd actually be really interested in this assuming it actually takes off; I'm one of those techies that loves to play with stuff and take it apart. Piecemeal upgrading of the phone instead of having to purchase a discrete new model definitely appeals :)

      1. TheOtherHobbes

        Re: Good Idea, However...

        You can't add SATA, USB3, or some equivalent, to everything. It would be too expensive, and probably also electronically noisy in a confined space, which would make certification unlikely without some very careful EMC design - tricky if you're trying to work with something that has an aerial, like WiFi or Bluetooth.

        There's also the problem that many components just aren't small enough to make this work. I think it's unlikely you'll get a WiFi aerial or GPS unit tiny enough to fit into one of the itty-bitty boxes. And if you try and fit it into a bigger box, you squeeze out space for useful stuff, like a battery.

        1. monkeyfish

          Re: Good Idea, However...

          Surely you'd make the Processor/RAM/GPU/screen connections special ones and force them to sit next to each other sensibly, rather than just anywhere on the bus? Everything else could sit on the bus somewhere and effectively not have a defined physical 'place'. You don't plug RAM into the SPI on desktop, for instance, so I don't see why they couldn't have a different connection.

    2. ecofeco Silver badge

      Re: Good Idea, However...

      Short answer Robin?

      I think that's the general idea.

  8. Shagbag

    The 'endoskeleton'..

    ..is an inferior design to the mezoskeleton. It'll either fail or succeed.

    1. Sorry that handle is already taken. Silver badge

      Re: The 'endoskeleton'..

      "It'll either fail or succeed."

      Correct.

  9. Sandtreader

    Cost & reliability

    It's a great idea in theory but the mantra I was always taught for reducing cost and improving reliablity in consumer electronics is removing connectors and reducing independent assemblies.

    I suspect it might have a limited market for people like El Reg readers, though...

    1. JaimieV

      Re: Cost & reliability

      Yep. I took my phone apart recently (three years old and the home button was getting iffy). The iFixit instructions were very insistant to never touch any of the shiny contacts, pins or socket, as the tolerances are so tight that a grease film will likely kill the conductance - and I did indeed have to open it up twice more to clean off the wifi and the touchscreen connectors.

      The other thing with this is that most of the content of a phone is battery, plus some aerials and the interconnects. The CPU/flash/comms electronics are a tiny tiny sliver. So it's not a set of reasonably sized lego pieces as per the pic, there's one huge lump for the battery and a few bits'n'bobs.

      Those bits are seriously tightly packed, with chippery and aerials shaped and overlaid for best space usage. If you split out the cellular radio and its aerial, then the bluetooth and its aerial, wifi, GPS, NFC... you'll end up with a device double its size of a normal integrated phone. If you're assembling a 'phablet' then that's not fatal, but anything under about 5" screen is probably not possible.

      Take a look at any disassembly guide for a modern phone, and try and work out how to break that into functional lumps. There aren't enough to make a modular assembly worthwhile, I don't think.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Does Android Need More Fragmentation?

    As fun as the swappable modules look, I have to wonder if this will cause more problems than it solves. With this not only do I need to know if the next Android update supports my phone, but also how it supports my various add-on modules. That said, if anyone is in a position to accomplish this in at least a semi-practical manner, it's Google (expect to see module compatibility checking extend deep into the play store).

    1. M Gale

      Re: Does Android Need More Fragmentation?

      Swap out old CPU block, insert new CPU block, OS gets updated with the CPU? Hell, it might even promote a better chance of getting upgrades for the existing hardware, what with manufacturers not having the incentive to persuade you to buy a whole new device any more.

      ALTHOUGH:

      Really, after trying to use an older model iPad with a newer revision of iOS, I don't know whether having a bleeding-edge OS revision on older hardware, at least with locked down toys like smartphones and tablets, is a really good idea.

      Tap.. tap.. fucking REACT YOU SLOW PIECE OF SHIT.. tap.. tap.. ah, there we are.

      Seriously, don't ever listen to some iFan saying anything about Android glitches. An old phrase about stones and glass houses comes to mind.

  11. BigG
    Trollface

    Taking a punt on something a bit different

    Will one module be an SD Card slot?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Taking a punt on something a bit different

      Sure… nothing stops you using a SD card on a phone. A quick mkfs.ext3 later and you're good to go without the nastygrams from Redmond.

      1. vagabondo
        Linux

        Re: Taking a punt on something a bit different

        @ Stuart Longland

        > A quick mkfs.ext3

        A journalling filesystem on a flash memory device is probably not such a good idea. Try something like mkfs.nilfs2 .

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Boffin

          Re: Taking a punt on something a bit different

          A journalling filesystem on a flash device that implements a FTL, such as a SD card, EXT3 is fine.

          True flash file systems are for MTD flash, of which my preference is for UBI. Most of these cannot be used on regular block devices without some MTD emulation trickery.

          (Been there, done that.)

          Should point out, not familiar with NILFS2 specifically… EXT3 has the nicety that other OSes can read/write it. Windows can access it using EXT2IFS. AFAIK there are FUSE drivers for MacOS X, and of course, the BSD derivatives all support it.

  12. This post has been deleted by its author

  13. Mike Moyle

    That endoskeleton...

    ...appears to take two modules each of three sizes and four formats -- small square, large square, thin rectangle long-edge-in, and thin rectangle short-edge-in. I foresee problems unless module-makers produce their parts in multiple formats: "I want THAT camera module, but they only come in 'thin-short-edge-in' and I only have a 'small-square' slot left!"

    OTOH, it's probably a good thing that it's Googorola trying this, rather than Nokia/Microsoft... With tiles on both sides, you might not be able to tell which side of the phone you're looking at after a night out!

    1. hplasm
      Thumb Up

      Re: That endoskeleton...

      This will appeal to Tetris addicts then!

  14. sisk
    Coat

    Just think: 10 years from now poor college geeks will be assembling frankenphones from the piles of parts people threw out as they upgraded.

    Excuse me while I finish putting together this s939 box for my kids. Anyone know where I left that bag of DDR400 sticks?

  15. Henry Wertz 1 Gold badge

    OK...

    I do doubt this will be something where you can get a phone and just keep putting newer and newer parts on. However, I do like the idea of, if say my keyboard wore out (full keyboard please?) that I could just like unsnap it and snap in a new keyboard, versus the labor-intesive process required on a conventional phone. If I had a choice of a conventional smartphone, and one that is DYI like this, I'd get the DYI one.

    1. monkeyfish

      Re: OK...

      Isn't that the idea with the Jolla phone (which I do hope works out) changeable back covers? Less overall customisation, but you would be able to have a choice of keyboard/better camera/console buttons.

  16. Mike Flugennock
    Devil

    At last, free labor!

    So, is Motorola at last too damn' cheap to pay Indonesian girls $4 a day -- or whatever godawful wages they're getting -- to build their goddamn' phones?

    1. James O'Shea

      Re: At last, free labor!

      Will no-one think of the children?

      The poor, pitiful, now unemployed children?

  17. JB

    Some assembly required

    "Some assembly required" - never thought that would apply to phones!

  18. Montreal Sean

    This can't be a Googorola phone.

    Surely it's an Ikea phone?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Coat

      Re: This can't be a Googorola phone.

      Does it come with an allen key?

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    iFixit

    Is that one phone that iFixit won't need to tear apart and give it a rating of 1 to 10?

  20. Shugyosha
    Meh

    US != World

    Will they shake up the smartphone world, or will they just shake up the US? I'm getting tired of hearing about the great new phones Motorola are bringing out, only to find out they're not available to any market outside the US.

  21. MrDamage

    Think of the 3rd party module possibilities

    -Meccano exoskeleton

    - Steam/smoke generator for the steampunk crowd

    - Taser module (just dont activate the app by mistake when you try to make a call, or put it in your pocket)

    - Laser pointer

    - Charging socket for bluetooth headset

    - Hinges with stretchy cables for connections

    The list goes on....

  22. D@v3

    nice idea

    i like the prospect of being able to have a full fold out keyboard, that when not required could be swapped for an extra battery, or maybe a better camera with an sd slot.

    not going to hold my breath though.

  23. Unicornpiss Silver badge

    A cool idea that will probably be stillborn

    Sounds kind of neat, but I'll be immensely surprised if they manage to get it to market, and if it actually catches on. If anyone can make it fly, it's Google/Motorola. Still, I won't hold my breath.

  24. system11

    I hope they manage it, I'd definitely own something like this where I can tailor make my phone. I think the most realistic outcome is they learn a lot making a prototype, and some of the concepts and features invented along the way end up in Motorola handsets and/or Android.

  25. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Modular = Large?

    The return of brick sized phones?

    1. Francis Boyle Silver badge

      Re: Modular = Large?

      Phones have been getting larger for years. This wouldn't have work five years ago but now, provided the standard modules are thin enough I don't see size as being a problem.

  26. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The problem with this will be

    that the #1 part to break will be the body with the screen, and at the price that will cost to replace you might as well buy a normal phone.

  27. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    So google/moto saw that "Phone bloks" thing too then. Was doing the rounds a while back.

    https://phonebloks.com/

  28. Aldous
    Trollface

    Neat

    Now i can take trolling of co-workers even further:

    Someone whines about low battery life on an iFruit or sealed android, i can pop the back off mine and swap a battery with ease. Someone bitching about lack of storage on their hard wired flash, pop the back cover point to the micro sd and go "can't you just swap that bit out for a bigger one"

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