Thursday, July 24, 2014

Piecing together the future of smartphones

October 30. 2013 11:49PM

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In the world of consumer electronics, trends sometimes take on the force of law.

One of those trends, it seems, is a tendency towards “black-box” engineering — that is, you can’t replace, repair or upgrade a piece of technology once you’ve purchased it.

Smartphones and tablets are commonly built this way — many don’t have removable batteries or microSD cards, and while many PCs are still able to be upgraded, the decreasing price of desktop computers has meant that many people tend to simply buy a new machine rather than attempt to upgrade their existing one.

As a consequence, it came as a surprise when Motorola decided to buck that trend with Project Ara — a modular smartphone.

As it stands, anytime you buy a new smartphone, it’s out of date about a month after you buy it. There’s something faster, with a better screen, a better battery or an improved camera. And, of course, it’s basically impossible to upgrade a smartphone.

Or at least it has been until now.

Project Ara would allow consumers to snap a smartphone together by selecting various modules — this camera, that screen and that battery, for example — onto a generic framework that connects all of the components together.

Not only would this allow users to upgrade their phones when a new module became available — say a faster processor or a better camera — but it also would allow them to customize their devices to suit specific tasks — for example, adding an infrared emitter to act as a remote control or a different type of input port to do diagnostics on a vehicle.

Project Ara also offers exciting opportunities for hardware developers, both large and small — allowing them to develop all sorts of unique components for different devices.

If successful, this could change the world of mobile computing — making mobile devices even more flexible and capable than they already are. The possibilities are seemingly limitless.


There are always a couple of “gotchas” with any technology.

A modular smartphone doesn’t necessarily mean an “immortal” smartphone.

As with upgrading a PC, there are bound to be limitations to what modules are compatible with which phone framework.

Eventually, as demands for power grow, and the way various pieces of hardware interface with one another changes, various components or even the entire device will still become outmoded.

And, as always, certain pieces of hardware just won’t play nice with others, so there’s the potential for compatibility problems, which could cause headaches for the end user.

Still, Project Ara opens up amazing possibilities for mobile devices, and has the potential to reshape the mobile landscape for the better — although dropping your phone and having it break into about 10 pieces could be somewhat irritating.

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