One of the major selling points for Motorola's post-Google-acquisition flagship Moto X has been customization. Users are invited "design" their own phone via the Motomaker website. Unfortunately, the customization options on motomaker aren't all that... customizable; there's a limited pallet of superficial color choices and the only real hardware decision is whether to include a 16 or 32GB hard drive. However, an ambitious new initiative from Motorola known as Project Ara may signal a pivot towards true customization.
The company describes Ara as a free open hardware platform that will facilitate highly modular smartphones. The new project will allow third parties to create individual hardware components without the burdon of having to manufacture a whole new phone. The company says it wants the new initiative...
"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."
Project Ara phones consist of a structural frame the company refers to as "endo" (as in endoskeleton) and interchangeable modules. These modules, which anyone will be allowed to make, are where the true customization comes in. They can be anything from an internal components like application processors to peripherals like displays or keyboards to something completely different altogether.
Motorola notes that this sort of project is available due to the increased versatility of smartphones in addition to the lowered entry to 3D printing. Within the Ara ecosystem, creating a new hardware component would be as approachable as developing a new app. See a prototype version of Ara below. (It looks somewhat like a Windows Phone display, no?)
Project Ara says its development will be informed by the Phonebloks community, a similarly minded take on open source modular phone construction. The company hopes to release a Module Developer's Kit (MDK) sometime this winter.
There have been a number of successful takes on third-party smartphone accessories--Square, for example, allows any smartphone to process credit card transitions. If Ara can develop as planned, however, it could be a true gamechanger. As app stores filled with third-party software have unleased functionality that the Samsungs and Apples of the world could never anticipate, an open source, crowdsourced approach would open doors to hardware we have yet to imagine.