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Cellphones Handhelds Hardware Hacking Hardware Build

Motorola's "Project Ara" Will Allow Users To Customize Their Smartphones 112

Posted by timothy
from the snap-and-go dept.
rtoz writes "Motorola has announced 'Project Ara,' afree and open hardware platform for smartphones. The purpose of Project Ara is to create a modular smartphone that would allow users to swap hardware components according their own wish. The design for Project Ara consists of an endoskeleton (endo) and modules. The endo is the structural frame that holds all the modules in place. A module can be anything, from a new application processor to a new display or keyboard, an extra battery, a pulse oximeter — or something not yet thought of." Motorola's not the first one to think of such a thing; this project is in cooperation with Phonebloks, which had already been pushing for reusable, reconfigurable phone components.
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Motorola's "Project Ara" Will Allow Users To Customize Their Smartphones

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  • by jfdavis668 (1414919) on Tuesday October 29, 2013 @08:50AM (#45267905)
    You could buy computers with backs that opened, and you could configure them with new hardware...
    • by stud9920 (236753)

      You could buy computers with backs that opened, and you could configure them with new hardware...

      Yeah, too bad you can't swap monitors, graphic adaptors, hard disks or SSDs, cpus and memory anymore. The evil corporations took away that possibility to increase profit. Oh wait, you can still do that.

    • Re:Remember when (Score:5, Insightful)

      by sl4shd0rk (755837) on Tuesday October 29, 2013 @09:36AM (#45268367)

      You could buy computers with backs that opened

      Um.. nothing has changed dude. You still can. Perhaps you've been in the Apple monoculture too long.

      • You can still open the Apple computers too. He's just too lazy to do it.
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          You can still open the Apple computers too. He's just too lazy to do it.

          not unless you buy their proprietary screwdriver for the weird pentalobe screws they use on all of their products.

      • by Alarash (746254)
        Apparently with the next Intel CPU (Broadwell), it won't be possible anymore. http://www.electronista.com/articles/12/11/30/socketless.move.sees.intel.merge.processors.with.motherboard/ [electronista.com]
        • by Derec01 (1668942)

          Honestly in the course of many upgrades to systems (this is at a personal level, not business), I've almost never upgraded these independently. I don't know that the socket lifespan has significantly shortened; it feels more like the timespan a particular CPU is acceptable has lengthened to the socket architecture lifetime.

          The major immediate effect, as someone on your link pointed out, might be the coupling of the hardware signatures for OS activation.

        • by Anonymous Coward

          That's good.

          The reason it is good, is because CPU-memory bus-width is presently limited by the pitch of the lands/pins on the cpu (Intel/AMD). You can't move them closer together without significantly increasing the cost of the CPU package and socket, or moving to a BGA soldered package, which is cheaper and can achieve a pad pitch of less than 1/4 what can be readily achieved with sockets. That translates into 16 times the pads of current CPUs, and therefore up to 16 times wider memory bus and bandwidth. I

    • You could buy computers with backs that opened, and you could configure them with new hardware...

      You still can.

    • by exomondo (1725132)

      You could buy computers with backs that opened, and you could configure them with new hardware...

      Can't say it's particularly hard to remember the present. While we had (and continue to have) this with computers we have never had it with cellphones before.

  • by Jack Malmostoso (899729) on Tuesday October 29, 2013 @08:51AM (#45267909)

    This is excellent. At my company we are not allowed to have phones with cameras, so now I am juggling my private smartphone and a kick-ass Nokia 101 which I take to my desk.

    If I could build a smartphone with a decent touchscreen, no camera, and dual sim capabilities I'd be really happy.

    • by cdrudge (68377) on Tuesday October 29, 2013 @09:05AM (#45268013) Homepage

      At my company we are not allowed to have phones with cameras,

      So why do you think that they would allow a phone that could easily have a camera added to it after you walked past security?

      • With some talented exceptions, people who write lists of forbidden objects for a living often exhibit dangerously limited imagination.
      • Excellent question. I guess the fact that all management has been switched to iPhones recently shows that some pigs are more equal than others, and more importantly smartphones are OK.

        Let's face it, if you want to steal stuff there are a million ways.

      • by Sarten-X (1102295)

        Because that's not the point. The rules say there's no cameras allowed, so if anyone brings a camera in, they're breaking the rules. Sure, you can sneak in a camera, and I'd expect people do it accidentally all the time, but if it's ever taken out or used inside the secure area, everybody nearby knows that it's banned.

        The policy is really only expected to encourage questioning. The natural assumption that everyone is honest is the biggest threat to security.

      • by gapagos (1264716)

        Because it is just a security theater [xkcd.com].

    • This is excellent. At my company we are not allowed to have phones with cameras, so now I am juggling my private smartphone and a kick-ass Nokia 101 which I take to my desk.

      If I could build a smartphone with a decent touchscreen, no camera, and dual sim capabilities I'd be really happy.

      I've always been somewhat surprised by how (relatively) few vendors of fancy smartphones don't have a "My employer is paranoid, I'll give you $100 extra to leave out the phone module during assembly." build-to-order option.

      Doesn't solve anybody's problem if they still want their phone to take pictures outside of work; but if you just don't care about your phone's camera, it'd at least let you choose from a much longer list of contemporary gear.

      • by tftp (111690)

        I've always been somewhat surprised by how (relatively) few vendors of fancy smartphones don't have a "My employer is paranoid, I'll give you $100 extra to leave out the phone module during assembly." build-to-order option.

        Because then the phone cannot be used for making or receiving phone calls.

    • by Thanshin (1188877)

      This is excellent. At my company we are not allowed to have phones with cameras

      Are you allowed to have any other kind of camera?

      How do they stop people from carrying one of those cameras that look like a car key, an usb key, a pen, or any other tiny item? [amazon.com]

      Or is it just a security circus to tell the clients "We are ultra secure!".

      • by Sockatume (732728)

        Well if you've deliberately taken a concealed, disguised camera in to work it'd be easier for them to show mens rea and a lot harder for you to claim good faith if a bunch of photos of your super-secret workspace later showed up on Friendface.

        • by Thanshin (1188877)

          So all you need to do to remove an obstacle on your route to the top is to drop some $9 spy cameras on the obstacle's pocket.

          It's quite cheaper than the classic "drop some coke on his pocket and on his drug test day coffee".

          • by Sockatume (732728)

            You'd have to drop the spy cameras in their pocket and then somehow plant evidence that they were actually using the cameras to cause leaks, yes, but that's all the help you're getting from me on this one. Enjoy ascending to management.

      • They aren't so much afraid of people intentionally bringing in cameras as they are worried about people bringing in recording devices which are attached to easily hacked sensor platforms. Yes, I could easily bring in a hidden camera to work, but I won't and I don't because I agreed not to. However, if I were allowed to bring my phone, and someone hacked it to constantly record audio/video and transmit it back out, that might be a bit of a problem that doesn't even require a malicious employee.

        They also ju

    • by balaband (1286038)

      Actually it is more than just you.

      1. People who hate to change their phone. One little thing broke? Replace and continue. Even if it is a main board, changing this part will be cheaper that changing whole phone (and if you made a image of your phone, just flash the image and bam - proceed like nothing happened).

      Getting use to new phone, buttons and layouts is stressful to most users. I know if you told my father he can have a phone that will serve him for the next 10 years, he would love it.

      2. People who wi

      • #1 is one of the few reasons I wish I had gone apple.

        The phones got a little taller with the iPhone 5, but they have basically been the same form factor since 2007. And the interface/buttons have remained basically the same (although, I would love to have a dedicated back button that is always in exactly the same place).

        I sat there with an open contract for a good 6 months waiting for a phone that I actually wanted to replace my old phone. The android options were huge...the S4 and HTC One are giants

    • by Fredde87 (946371)
      Why cant you buy a normal smartphone and just remove the camera from the phone? Not very hard to open a phone up and remove the camera?
  • I honestly don't care too much about my phone's specs, but build-your-own laptops have never seemed to surface despite BYO desktops being an important surviving part of that shrinking sector. I just want to be able to buy processor and graphics upgrades and not have to purchase a new monitor and keyboard whenever I want a new mobile computer.

    • CPU upgrades are mostly doable (approximately as much as in a hypothetical desktop computer where you can't do a motherboard swap); but GPU upgrades seem to be game over. Yeah, MxM 'exists'; but very few laptops use it, there is virtually no secondary market in MxM cards (much less GPU vendors or their OEMs putting new MxM cards, with new GPUs, on the market as individual parts, it's almost all working-pulls from dead hardware), and, while the module is the same size and shape at all times, the require cool
    • by Sockatume (732728)

      Size constraints, essentially.

      1) User-friendly connectors and easy access paths use up volume. It's not a zero-sum game, but making a compact machine with user-serviceable components takes engineering effort, which means more R&D money.

      2) You can reduce volume by using non-standard parts that fit more neatly together.

      The first one means your GPU and CPU are more often than not a single component soldered directly on the motherboard, and the second one means that nobody has come up with a standardised mo

      • by pepty (1976012)

        Applies even more to smartphones:

        http://www.ifixit.com/Teardown/Samsung+Galaxy+S4+Teardown/13947/

        Skip down to steps 13-15. imagine if 3 or 4 of those components were housed in plastic dominos as per the article. How many other components would have to be left out of the phone to fit them in?

        On the other hand:

        Step 12 Resting atop the motherboard is the SIM/microSDXC board. On one hand, the modular design of this component makes it possible to replace if you happen to jam something into one of the two slots—although you will need to replace both at once.

        That's what modular looks like if you don't waste space.

        I do like the idea of an easily replaced display, at least until they stop being so brittle. Other accessories could be attached externally v

    • by tlhIngan (30335)

      I honestly don't care too much about my phone's specs, but build-your-own laptops have never seemed to surface despite BYO desktops being an important surviving part of that shrinking sector. I just want to be able to buy processor and graphics upgrades and not have to purchase a new monitor and keyboard whenever I want a new mobile computer.

      They do exist, but most people don't know about them because they usually exit the market shortly after introduction when buyers go and see that they'll end up buying a

  • Can I add a physical keyboard? It seems like I am one of only a handful of people on the planet that still likes them so I would love to add that although I am not holding my breath.
    • Can I add a physical keyboard? It seems like I am one of only a handful of people on the planet that still likes them so I would love to add that although I am not holding my breath.

      I think a lot of people like physical keyboards. I've had various full qwerty physical keyboard phones that have been far superior to any predictive touch input, for writing emails etc. The problem is that the cost is too high compared to the simplicity of touch screens handling everything. And that is cost both in terms of production cost and the added size/weight and breakage risk.

      • I see. I wouldn't mind paying extra though. Apple charges a premium for what they consider added value and I wouldn't mind paying for a phone with what I consider added value.
      • by mlts (1038732) *

        I'd be quite happy for a physical keyboard similar to what was on the Motorola CLIQ/DEXT which would spring open and closed.

        Of course, the #1 thing in a phone would be an unlocked bootloader, but next to that would be a physical keyboard and a decent amount of RAM so activities don't have to be reloaded when I switch apps.

        Of course, there is the pie in the sky stuff: I'd like two features that were present in the Atrix: The fingerprint scanner [1], and the ability to be dropped in a dock and run a lightwe

    • by gmuslera (3436)
      You probably will have better luck with Jolla's Other half [jolla.com] approach, where you can change the cover for more/different functionality, and between the proposed alternatives, there is one with hardware keyboard.
    • by rdnetto (955205)

      The design for Project Ara consists of what we call an endoskeleton (endo) and modules. The endo is the structural frame that holds all the modules in place. A module can be anything, from a new application processor to a new display or keyboard, an extra battery, a pulse oximeter--or something not yet thought of!

    • by Hentes (2461350)

      You can already buy keyboard cases [talkandroid.com].

  • E.g. switch from Verizon to Sprint? Or upgrade from 4G to whatever comes next?

    .
  • I want a lot more RAM and an FM receiver. There is so little RAM in my bloatware-choked Verizon phone, every time I switch apps, then go back to browsing, the browser has to download the page again because it got killed off.This busts my data cap and incurs more charges. Didn't Verizon realize this when they limited RAM and loaded up most free space with unkillable bloatware?

    It sounds like they didn't know what they were doing would lead to these extra charges to their customers which then went into their

    • Why haven't you rooted the crap out of that thing yet?

    • by mcgrew (92797) *

      I want a lot more RAM and an FM receiver.

      I'd like to be able to watch OTA TV on my phone (FM is right between channels 6 and 7 on the UHF band) but I don't think it would be physically possible; FM/TV wavelengths are a lot longer than wifi and cell frequencies. I don't know if you could get an antenna on a phone that would work with that.

      But as to FM on your phone, get the TuneIn app. Almost every radio station in the world is accessible on it, since almost every station also streams. It was the first app I

  • I'd seen the Phonebloks video a while ago and thought it was some kind of joke: their CPU block has 4 pins. 4 !!! I don't know how many pins a current Cortex A-9 has but I'd bet it's over 300... I'd love this concept to work, but it's a tad bit unrealistic.
    • by Sockatume (732728)

      Surely you'd just have the CPU/GPU/RAM in a single component, and then it could talk to the other peripherals through some sort of efficient bus? Not 4 pins, but maybe HDMI to the display and USB out to a hub in the backplate that then talked to the other peripherals.

    • While that number is low, it's not far off. you need power and communication. interchip communication for a phone is largely serial. So, you need a bus with a minumum of 2 or 3 dedicated pins for communication and 2 pins for power. One has to assume the RAM and some FLASH would be embedded on the CPU block. Additional memory space (flash) would also use a serial communication bus. You could either use the same bus as all the peripherals or add a bus specifically for memory. Similar answer applies for
    • by julesh (229690)

      I don't know how many pins a current Cortex A-9 has but I'd bet it's over 300...

      Varies depending on the precise implementation. The smallest I'm aware of is the Allwinner A13, which has a 176-pin package. It's possible that some application-specific chips have fewer: the A13 is designed to run with external RAM and NAND flash, high colour LCD display and multiple additional external peripherals, which explains the pin count -- but if you designed a chip with onboard RAM and storage for an application where monochrome display was standard and you only wanted to talk to a handful of pe

    • by xupere (1680472)

      4 pins should be enough for anybody.

  • by renzhi (2216300) on Tuesday October 29, 2013 @09:34AM (#45268339)

    Don't hold your breath, this is not going to happen. There is little profit margin in selling components like this, why would the phone manufacturers get into low-margin business and abandon their high-profit business? Selling replaceable components means that users are going to hold on to their longer, and replace it less. Where's the profit in that the manufacturers? Their job is to dump a new phone model on the market every 3 months, rinse and repeat.

    • by sootman (158191)

      There are many reasons why this won't work, or won't work well. For one thing, there is no wasted space inside a modern smartphone. Fitting every component into its own rectangular plastic case would roughly double the volume of a modern phone.

      Sizing of components is another issue. You can't have an arbitrary number of arbitrarily-sized components always add up to a perfect rectangle. Take ten basic Lego bricks of varying sizes, and see how many ways you can make a perfect rectangle -- and how many ways you

    • When has Google followed the model you're describing? Theirs is "support a dev phone for at least two major release cycles, sell at less than half the price of a similar-spec OEM phone, put a dent in the entrenched scheme of subsidized phones at appalling retail prices." Everything Google has done in this space has been good for Google, and often good for nerds who like having a decent device that's also hackable. Modular phones means that the few friends who trust someone like a Slashdotter to help make

    • by Derec01 (1668942)

      It's in Google's interest to make this happen. Apple, and by extension iOS, is supported by these high margin phones, and they would be hugely damaged if the same "assembled-to-order" transition that hit PCs early on became commonplace for phones. Apple probably isn't structured to support a huge number of configurations for iOS.

      Granted, Apple still survives in laptops, etc. as a premium, standardized version. However, the phenomenon would be a huge boon for Android in high performance phones.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Motorola, of course, has no interest in modular phones. The market for them is relatively small, and if a part fails (say, the headphone jack), it's much, much more profitable to force consumers to buy a new $350 phone than it is to sell them a $5 replacement module. Plus, the mobile carrier "free" upgrade system is already in place, essentially locking consumers in to buying a new phone every two years (obviously theyre not locked in, but who would pass up a heavily-discounted phone?). This scheme is no

  • It's a ridiculous, impractical concept.

    I was a radio amateur in high school and college. At the time, portable transceivers, commonly called "HT"s, (for "handi-talkie", I think a Motorola trademark) were getting popular with hams. Initially, there were no companies making such transceivers specifically for amateur radios, so they managed to get surplus police radios that could be re-tuned to work on a nearby ham band.

    The elite choice was by and far the Motorola "bricks", so called because of their weight, s

  • I'm curious how they will handle the driver situation in Android.
    As I understand it the specific drivers for your device's hardware are package (compiled?) with the OS, making it infeasible to swap out parts.
    Perhaps drivers could be stored in updatable firmware on the modules?

    • by Techman83 (949264)
      Considering Motorola Mobility are owned by Google, maybe there is some hope for open source drivers rather than binary blobs. It's a wonderful dream at least.
  • Remember those? An early attempt at a "modular" PDA. It worked OK, but the concept went nowhere. The basic unit became obsolete quickly and most of the available "add-ons" were simply built into next-gen PDAs.

    Anyway, aren't most of the proposed add-ons (battery packs, external displays, pulse oximeters) already available for existing phones?

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