Google headed in a different direction, making its Android software mostly open and working with third-party hardware makers. Though the company's approach has not been as directly profitable in the mobile market as Apple's, it has earned more popularity for Android and has scorched the Earth for its competition.
Now Motorola, acquired by Google last year and still losing money, wants to bring the (relative) openness of Android to mobile hardware. In doing so it might be able to gain ground against iOS devices by offering greater customization and by providing an exit path from the smartphone hardware upgrade cycle.
Motorola on Monday presented a preview of Project Ara, its free, open hardware platform for creating modular smartphones.
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"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," said Paul Eremenko, associate VP of advanced technology and projects group at Motorola, in a blog post.
Project Ara envisions mobile phones as a set of customizable components that can be snapped together like Lego blocks. Compliant devices will have an endoskeleton, serving as a structural frame and circuit board, and a series of modules, such as a cellular radio, a camera or a digital storage unit, that offer specific functions.
Eremenko says that Motorola has been working on creating a modular smartphone for over a year now and that the company recently began working with the Phonebloks community, a group created by designer Dave Hakkens that also seeks to develop a more modular approach to mobile hardware.
This winter, Eremenko says Motorola plans to deliver a module developer's kit (MDK), which will allow companies and individuals to design and create hardware modules that will work with Project Ara devices.
Modular phones are unlikely to match the careful fit and polish of Apple's iPhone. But by accepting a less-refined design, Motorola will be able to offer its customers far greater flexibility than Apple can offer, at least currently. Customers who need more storage or a different kind of camera or a specialized sensor should be able to add the appropriate module without buying a new device.
This could wreak havoc on an industry dependent on periodic hardware replacement, particularly on Apple. But that's the idea: One of the explicit goals of Phonebloks is to encourage people to keep their mobile devices for longer periods of time and to reduce electronic waste.
U.S. smartphone users replaced their devices every 22 months in 2012, according to Recon Analytics, and a recent Business Insider report says the upgrade cycle is getting longer. If modular mobile phones catch on, Apple might have to reevaluate whether the functional limitations that come with sophisticated design -- such as non-removable batteries and the inability to modify the hardware configuration -- are worth it.
At the same time, Project Ara could prove to be a solution in search of a problem: Many of the functions planned for smartphone modules might work just as well with hardware connected wirelessly instead of physically. Look at the way Google Glass can interface with smartphones.
The primary reason to attach hardware components together is to provide power. But ongoing advances in battery miniaturization, power harvesting, and semiconductor power efficiency could make it unnecessary to wire components together.
Ultimately, the impact of Project Ara and Phonebloks will depend on community engagement. If enough people become involved, the resulting distributed innovation could be enough to outpace what a single, focused company like Apple can achieve. Or it could languish like Google's [email protected] project.