Lego-style phone: Motorola already on the case


Yesterday we reported on a man with an idea to make modular mobile phones where replaceable and upgradeable components snapped together like Lego. It turns out Motorola has been working on just such a concept itself.

Dave Hakkens, a Dutch designer, came up with the Phonebloks idea. He suggested a baseboard with an electrical circuit that would send signals to and from components through the metal pins used to hold each part in place. Using a “crowd-speaking” tool, Thunderclap, almost a million social media accounts were scheduled to send out a message promoting the idea today.

It’s likely little coincidence then that Motorola chose this week to reveal Project Ara (pictured), which it describes as an open hardware platform. It works in a very similar way to the Phonebloks concept, with the baseboard referred to as the endoskeleton.

It doesn’t appear to be a case of anyone pilfering ideas. Motorola says it has been working on the project for more than a year, but recently met Hakkens to discuss his work and found they could both bring something to the tables: “We’ve done deep technical work. Dave created a community.”

There doesn’t appear to be any formal partnership, but Motorola says it will be making its work on Project Ara as open as possible and will be “engaging with the Phonebloks community throughout our development process.” The plan is to have a module developer’s kit available in the next few months.

The physical logistics of such a design remain a challenge, with keeping the phone a manageable size and avoiding environmental damage such as dust or moisture both problems to be solved.

However, with a major firm like Motorola not only on board with the idea, but wanting to make it an open ecosystem rather than simply develop a single proprietary handset, it may at least be fair to upgrade the idea from “impossible” to “improbable.”

5 Responses to Lego-style phone: Motorola already on the case

  1. There is always a trade-off between space and performance. To be able to have interchange parts means increase in space requirement (extra space to secure the modular, extra space to make connection ports, etc.)
    I mean, do you know how small a gyroscope MEMS is on a smartphone? Here ( Here is picture of RAM ( See how small these components are without plastic housing like the Lego block?
    Now think about adding a plastic casing and connection port just to make this detachable. And think about doing this to all the other parts of the phone. It will be big….
    In a product, where space requirement is greater than performance, you integrated it into the system to save as much space as possible. Also you optimize your system to run that specific parts (aka there will almost never be compatibility), because you gave up performance for space.
    This is why laptops and still use integrated circuit and you can’t change part (as easily as a desktop).

    Also, the “baseboard” (aka motherboard) will be obsolete as people develop faster and better connection protocols. This even hold true in desktop; when you get a new CPU, almost always you get a new motherboard.
    IF this modular system works (as of right now, it is impossible), it would only add 1~2 years before the baseboard become obsolete.

    Of course Motorola (Google) can aim for up-gradable modular that are not essential to the phone (like speaker, LED, camera), but even that doesn’t make sense.

    It would make much more sense to have detachable chips than to have bulky plastic housing parts, but where is the money in that?

    • Duh, your motherboard, ram, cpu, would all be on one block, w/cameras, BT, WIFI additional sensors, etc on other “USB”, “combo blocks”, and there is one CPU producer that does allow upgrade paths within common socket motherboards, often there are firmware updates to allow older motherboards to work with newer cpus- AMD used K7 socket for many years between about 700mhz to 3400mhz, after like 6-7 years they came up with AM2-3 which spanned into quad core applications and so forth…

      So every aspect of your negative argument is invalid…

      They do this & Motorola will be king of hardware again…

  2. no amount of firmware upgrade can make your quadcore CPU compatible with duocore CPU. CPU is just one aspect of the issue.
    Also, if you look at PCI express and its progression, it is certain that old motherboard can’t support new data transfer.
    The examples of goes on and on (RAM would another good example).

    Having addition “USB” combo block increase unnecessary space. If you are familiar with MEMS devices, they are small encasing them in a cube doesn’t make sense. And if you are going to bundle them together in a combo, why not just have everything on integrated circuit? This way, there will be less noisy, more secure, and more compact

    The circuit board used in those smartphones are not single layer, but multiple layers. There will always be trade off in space as you separate two components and isolate them into different systems (connected only via external ports). Wonder why everything is crammed so tightly together in laptop or smartphone? Space is the priority in those devices.

    There is a reason why laptop is not as “up-gradable” as a desktop let alone a smartphone.

    You can wish this will successful,but this will not be successful (as envision by the artist), because to goal of smartphone is to be small and fast. There is no amount engineering that can decrease the size of the bundle cubes, because the chip inside the cubes will always be smaller than the housing around it.

    Unless consumers demand convenience of interchangeable part over performance and size, then this will be failure.

    Lastly, wonder why we don’t have interchangeable laptop parts like wifi, camera, BT, CPU, RAM. Yeah, you can attach USB for some of those, but that increases space. Same for the smartphone (or worse, because smartphone is smaller and any extra space added to the smartphone will be larger % increase in overall size)

    Ask any engineering friends and see what they have to say about this. There is a reason why engineers didn’t come up with this, but rather an artist. It’s cool idea really. It is reserved for system where space in not the limiting factor (like desktop)

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