Motorola adopts Phonebloks’ build-your-own smartphone concept with Project Ara

29 Oct 2013

Early designs from Motorola's Project Ara

While thousands prepare to voice their demand for a modular smartphone that won’t quickly end up on the rubbish heap, Motorola reveals its plans to bring the Phonebloks concept to fruition.

Electronic devices are often disposed of when just one component stops working or fails to meet user requirements, and this is resulting in a fast-growing stream of electronic waste worldwide, largely driven by phones.

An estimated 1.8bn phones will be sold this year, and about 1.5bn of those will be thrown away or fall into permanent disuse. In the US, phone users hold on to a handset for, on average, 20 months. However, Dutch designer Dave Hakkens recently proposed an alternative to this trend of ‘disposable’ technology.

Hakkens proposed a Lego-like modular phone built up of blocks that can be replaced independently. Not only does this mean a phone remains operational when one component falls out of use, but also allows users to customise their device to suit their needs.


At 2pm today, the Phonebloks concept is set to reach an audience of more than 380m on social networks thanks to a Thunderclap involving more than 970,000 users. Thunderclap is a ‘crowdspeaking’ platform that lets users amplify a message by having a multitude of users post it to their networks simultaneously.

The idea is to demonstrate to the higher-ups in the tech industry that there is a market out there for smartphones built to last. But even before the Thunderclap goes out, Motorola has revealed that its latest project will work with the Phonebloks community on this very concept.

Project Ara intends to build an open hardware ecosystem where third-party developers can create individual phone components that can be assembled as users see fit. Essentially, this team wants “to do for hardware what the Android platform has done for software”, according to a post by Paul Eremenko from the Project Ara team on the Official Motorola Blog.

Motorola Project Ara / Phonebloks

Early designs from Motorola’s Project Ara

These phones will consist of an endoskeleton, or ‘endo’, holding together other component blocks like the processor, display, keyboard, battery camera, and whatever parts developers can come up with.

This open-source initiative is still at an early stage, inviting interested parties to come on board as ‘Ara Scouts’, but a module developer’s kit (MDK) is expected to be available this winter.

By lowering the barriers to entry for building smartphone components, Project Ara may not please the chief manufacturers but instead opens up the door for smaller companies to get involved and increase the pace of innovation.

Project Ara will be led by Motorola’s Advanced Technology and Projects group, which will engage with the Phonebloks community throughout the development process, imparting the phone manufacturer’s technical expertise on this concept.

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.