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Legophone (no actual lego involved)
October 29, 2013 5:50 AM   Subscribe

Google/Motorola unveil new modular phone idea. This is a partnership with the the Phoneblocks people, which was generally not well received when we last discussed the idea.
posted by Just this guy, y'know (42 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
I like it as an idea, but I don't need a highly specialized phone. And I have no reason to expect I'd do a better job of designing my own perfectly ordinary mobile phone than a squad of people whose full-time jobs are to design perfectly ordinary mobile phones, in their dedicated mobile phone industrial design shop.
posted by ardgedee at 5:56 AM on October 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


Google is involved?

Yeh. Do.not. Want.
posted by Faintdreams at 6:03 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


One of the commenters in the first linked article points out his own blog post describing this idea in 2007.
posted by fairmettle at 6:06 AM on October 29, 2013


I like it as an idea, but I don't need a highly specialized phone.

I do.

And I have no reason to expect I'd do a better job of designing

They're designing features and upgrades. All you gotta do is decide which features and upgrades you like.

For some people, that will be too hard. There's always Apple and Samsung and cheap little candybar featurephones.

Google is involved?

Yeh. Do.not. Want.


Heaven forefend the world's foremost purveyor of (free, largely open source) smartphone operating systems be involved with experimental phone design. Clearly it's going to be a catastrophe.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:07 AM on October 29, 2013 [22 favorites]


This strikes me as "buying a phone is too simple. Let's make it more like buying a PC."
posted by Foosnark at 6:08 AM on October 29, 2013 [7 favorites]


I think there might be some interesting hacks and repurposing of the modular components, but the phones themselves seem like they would be less than the sum of their parts.
posted by planetesimal at 6:10 AM on October 29, 2013


I guess they can reinvent PCMCIA for phones. But I don't see people buying thicker and heavier phones just in case they might want to replace some part someday.
posted by reynaert at 6:12 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


This strikes me as "buying a phone is too simple. Let's make it more like buying a PC."

That seems totally fine to me; it means there's a spectrum of options available to people from "I want something with big buttons that only makes phone calls" to "I have specific needs or personal idiosyncracies that I'd like to be able to meet." It also opens up an opportunity for third-party addons to phones that are interesting and integrate well, which is currently a pretty moribund area unless you think the shape of your bluetooth headset is innovative.

It's not like the old options will go away and everyone will be forced to assemble this stuff piece by piece.
posted by mhoye at 6:19 AM on October 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


Also, I'm not sure why the OP linked to a single comment and then a reddit thread as a support for consensus.
posted by planetesimal at 6:23 AM on October 29, 2013


My take on the previous criticism was that it was essentially "this is a terrible idea because it will make a worse phone" but where the only metrics for phone quality were slimness and speed. Like it will certainly make a thicker phone than an iPhone 5, but a lot of people already are buying phones that are thicker than that, so is that really a dealbreaker?
posted by smackfu at 6:32 AM on October 29, 2013


I think there's some sense in making buying a phone more like buying a PC because these days using a phone is more like using a PC. And I'm running into the same problems with my phone as I am with my laptops these past few years, which have clearly been designed to be sold more like phones. I don't need a new phone! I just need a new battery and maybe new camera glass and how much is that gonna run me? Oh. And that just gets me back to its original capabilities. I ended up with a whole new laptop a bit back because I realized only about six months after purchasing it that my previous one had a battery that was not intended to be replaceable, and neither was the keyboard, so when they both started to go after two years there was just nothing I could do. This is not, as far as I'm concerned, progress, to throw things away more often.

Google's been making overtures towards pushing away from this subsidized "new phone every two years" update cycle by making their unlocked Nexus offerings and the like. This is a natural direction, I think, for them to be exploring.

But wake me up when I can get my phone from Sandbenders.
posted by Sequence at 6:39 AM on October 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


To make this work, create a way to use a retired phone (or parts thereof) as the brains for toy kits. When you get a new phone or new parts, add your old phone hardware to your toy box.

A phone has memory, processing power, camera, speaker, and microphone. Plug it in to a chassis, drive train, manipulators, sensors, and communications capabilities, and you've got a robot or car or boat or submarine or high-altitude dirigible or whatever. Little semi-autonomous robots going out into the world like personal drones and calling home to send video and audio back to you. Electronic tags for use with large wild animals. Gangs of little robots scurrying about your home or hiding behind it. Microscopes and telescopes and spy gadgets.
posted by pracowity at 6:42 AM on October 29, 2013 [6 favorites]


(You could also use whole retired phones to do this sort of thing -- build a smart toy around a retired smartphone -- but the modular aspect makes these Ara things more attractive to the kit market.)
posted by pracowity at 6:45 AM on October 29, 2013


With the whole metro-like block design, I'm amazed Microsoft didn't try to swoop in before Google on this.
posted by samsara at 7:01 AM on October 29, 2013


Clearly it's going to be a catastrophe.

The only question I have is whether Google will kill Motorola faster than Microsoft will kill Nokia. Both are unquestionably moribund, but my money is on Google. Microsoft has a string of failures in the mobile space behind it. Google has all of its failures ahead of it. And the bigger the company the more epic the failure. Hell, Google spent 12,5b dollars to acquire Motorola and have very little to show for it. Motorola's much vaunted patent portfolio has been made nearly worthless by Google's clumsy efforts to enforce it. Why should anyone expect anything different on the hardware side?

Since GSM was launched in 1992 the tendency has been to move away from a network centric model to one where all the power is in the handset and the network is simply an IP pipe. Local policy enforcement (in the handset) instead of network policy enforcement is the future and this is anathema to network-centric companies like Google and Microsoft. OTOH it is a good part of the reason behind Apple's success.
posted by three blind mice at 7:09 AM on October 29, 2013


Modularity? Yay.

Kids stealing/hiding one of the modules and crippling the phone? Boo.
posted by JoeZydeco at 7:23 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


If they can pull this off, I'll be first in line to buy one - every phone/tablet I look at is missing something I want, whether it's battery life or storage space or an SD slot or whatever. Being able to mix-and-match the components into my favorite configuration is a dream.

Getting the software working? That's a nightmare. Android is not a plug-and-play OS. There's a reason a software update for the Galaxy S4 doesn't work for the S4 Mini or the Note 3, much less a Motorola or HTC phone. Each software release is compiled for one specific phone with one specific set of components. That would have to change in order to make this setup workable.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 7:28 AM on October 29, 2013


Too crazy for mainstream-markets. Too much mainstream for Crazy-markets.
posted by blue_beetle at 7:33 AM on October 29, 2013


I knew you'd make a comeback someday, Springboard Expansion Slot.
posted by box at 7:37 AM on October 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


I view this as a project by Motorola to improve ability to repair and upgrade by standardizing parts. With the expensive phones being well north of $500 now, it makes sense for them to look at a better way to repair customers' phones rather than just replace every time. Apple and Samsung seem to move more and more to integration with every generation. When my wife needed to replace a screen recently, we had to buy almost half of a phone and a significant amount of repair time. I'm wondering if Motorola is thinking that phone repair is a significant cost. They're already experimenting with modular case design in the Moto X.

Their customers may well want this too. While Apple has been making their laptops increasing integrated, IBM/Lenovo has been been making completely field-strippable laptops for more than 20 years now. If Motorola can make this work, it might be popular for the same reasons people choose Thinkpads: ease of making exactly what corporate IT wants, cheap swapping of parts, service life longer than a few years. With BB dead, there's an opportunity now in building a great business phone.
posted by bonehead at 7:40 AM on October 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


So, in short, perhaps Motorolla sees this as a way to build phones with different option packages, like trim options in cars. There's a base chassis, with factory-configured options, like the Moto X cases. Aftermarket might be possible, but 99% of their customers are going to choose the option package at the first sale. They lower design and productions costs, making one phone with options rather than 10 phones with slightly different parts, boards and cases.
posted by bonehead at 7:48 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Getting the software working? That's a nightmare. Android is not a plug-and-play OS. There's a reason a software update for the Galaxy S4 doesn't work for the S4 Mini or the Note 3, much less a Motorola or HTC phone. Each software release is compiled for one specific phone with one specific set of components. That would have to change in order to make this setup workable.

That would be the strategy. Google has been working towards getting their hardware partners to play nice with standard Android - Google has been strongarming them into releasing "Developer Edition" phones without the funky UI cruft Samsung and HTC lever onto their phone.

By introducing a modular hardware framework, Google and Motorola can create an ecosystem where it's harder to drift your version of the OS from the mainline build.

But, I'm gonna go a bit out on a limb here. Did you see the name Android anywhere in that BBC press release article? I sure didn't. Odd, they wouldn't mention the powerhouse brand name...

This isn't an Android phone platform, is it?

This is a ChromeOS phone. Support new hardware by writing browser plugins. Google has been putting a huge investment into ChromeOS lately. I really believe they're going to converge their three platforms - Android, Glass and ChromeOS - into one, and soon. Android is successful, but the original goal - to control mobile browsing to sell ads on Google's service ecosystem - is getting hard as Android fragments.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:54 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Somehow I'm pretty sure that I'll get get one on the Verizon network. Sigh.
posted by octothorpe at 7:59 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


I will possibly think about it when Motorola Mobility can write non-crap firmware for the NVG510 gateway I have to use for my DSL.
posted by Samizdata at 8:45 AM on October 29, 2013


Well, this should go over well with a certain part of the spectrum. I'll stick with my iPhone, thanks.
posted by entropicamericana at 8:46 AM on October 29, 2013


So, in short, perhaps Motorolla sees this as a way to build phones with different option packages, like trim options in cars.

And that's really the problem. A cellphone is more than a collection of parts. It's a set of parts connected together by default that you can expect a large enough fraction of humanity to own, so you can write software that uses all those parts and sell it to them.

3g internet + Camera => flickr app (or instagram or whatever the cool kids use these days)
gps + wifi => war driving, skyhook
gps + accelerometer + magnetometer + rear facing camera => layar augmented reality

All these concepts existed, but perhaps a few dozen people tried them because they required a substantial amount of what I'll dub 'digital plumbing': connecting a gps module to a linux laptop via bluetooth, hooking up your camera to a 3g enabled laptop, or soldiering together several thousand dollars worth of technologies to produce a wearable computer.

Several people are thinking about the formulations above and realizing the combinatorial explosion of possible applications, but the modular design also means you have another layer of Android fragmentation that handicaps your ability to put those applications in people's hands.
posted by pwnguin at 8:59 AM on October 29, 2013


3g internet + Camera => flickr app (or instagram or whatever the cool kids use these days)

I can get Flickr to work with any one of a few hundred thousands makes and models of digital camera, from giant DSLR's to craptastic $5 web-cams. Peripherals and expandable systems really aren't new.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:35 AM on October 29, 2013


I don't think they'd be changing base phone function (though maybe--different antenna/tech modules?), but add-on stuff that Android can handle in the base build. Mini SD card reader, second SIM slot, camera quality, a bunch of ports (HDMI, that new combo one Samsung is pushing), even slide out keyboards. Drivers for all of those things are in the base OS. Heck, make an option with no camera, and tons of corporates would sign up.
posted by bonehead at 9:50 AM on October 29, 2013


> Heck, make an option with no camera, and tons of corporates would sign up.

Do business users not want cameras in their phones? I've found the opposite to be true.
posted by planetesimal at 9:57 AM on October 29, 2013


dscout/ara

I'll stick with my iPhone for now, but it would be interesting to see Google/Motorola come up with something before Motorola goes bankrupt. The subsidiary is already a huge money loser for Google.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:02 AM on October 29, 2013


Why do I need this level of additional complexity in my life?
posted by oceanjesse at 10:06 AM on October 29, 2013


Interesting. Doesn't look to be running Android, unless it's a sneak peek at 4.4's lock screen.
posted by Slap*Happy at 10:55 AM on October 29, 2013


entropicamericana: "Well, this should go over well with a certain part of the spectrum. I'll stick with my iPhone, thanks."

Worst. Troll. Ever.
posted by Big_B at 12:17 PM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Why do I need this level of additional complexity in my life?

Because you really want a phone that conforms exactly to your needs for storage/speed/battery/whatever, and are willing to sacrifice simplicity for that?
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 12:19 PM on October 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


I really believe they're going to converge their three platforms - Android, Glass and ChromeOS - into one, and soon. Android is successful, but the original goal - to control mobile browsing to sell ads on Google's service ecosystem - is getting hard as Android fragments.

Does this mean Android is going to be forked at some point, and I'll get a mostly free phone OS that works in the real world and is not constantly trying to rope me into the Google product ecosystem? Cause I'm all for that, and I'd pay good money to see it happen.

Do business users not want cameras in their phones? I've found the opposite to be true.

I understand many companies are not very happy with people in sensitive positions or dealing with confidential material carrying around a camera 24/7. Issuing everybody with camera-less phones makes enforcement of No Photos policies a lot easier.
posted by Dr Dracator at 12:20 PM on October 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


Cause I'm all for that, and I'd pay good money to see it happen.

You didn't pay for a Palm Pre or Nokia N9 running WebOS or MeeGo, and that was before they were turned into open source abandonware despite being great mobile OS's.

In the meantime, SailFish or Firefox phones would be the ones you aren't going to spend good money on, though tough to find localized for the US at the moment. I'm sure you won't spend good money on an Ubuntu phone when it comes out, either. Such is the way of the world.
posted by Slap*Happy at 12:40 PM on October 29, 2013


Interesting. Doesn't look to be running Android, unless it's a sneak peek at 4.4's lock screen.

Looks like the ActiveDisplay screen on the Moto X Developer Edition (Android 4.2.2) I'm holding.
It only lights up the pixels it needs, and knows when I've removed it from my pocket, and is my friend.
posted by The Legit Republic of Blanketsburg at 12:41 PM on October 29, 2013


In the meantime, SailFish or Firefox phones would be the ones you aren't going to spend good money on, though tough to find localized for the US at the moment. I'm sure you won't spend good money on an Ubuntu phone when it comes out, either. Such is the way of the world.

I couldn't care less about US localization. Also do you want to buy a lightly used Neo Freerunner?
posted by Dr Dracator at 12:44 PM on October 29, 2013


Say I am going to Yellowstone for a week. Would I like to swap out my camera module for a bulkier one with higher resolution? And maybe add a stronger antenna for the marginal cell service?

Yes, yes I would.
posted by LarryC at 2:20 PM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't know - a lot depends on the execution and economic specifics. Would you do the same if the extra cost of a camera swapping capability and a second, higher resolution camera was similar to an equivalent point-and-shoot camera?
posted by Dr Dracator at 2:43 PM on October 29, 2013


"Well, this should go over well with a certain part of the spectrum. I'll stick with my iPhone, thanks."

Worst. Troll. Ever.


I don't think that's trolling. That's a perfectly fine attitude. Lots of people don't mind giving up some control and flexibility in favor of predictability. It isn't a problem so long as closed platforms prevent open platforms from being used. Right now the handset market is pretty competitive and there are lots of choices. Let's hope it stays that way.

In practice, I think modularity is more likely to come from devices that interact with each other wirelessly using open standards rather than devices that physically attach to each others like Legos. For example, it would be useful if your SLR camera would use your phone to upload pictures to the cloud. If there's no wireless signal, your camera would upload pictures to your portable storage instead. Okay, most of the time you'll only be carrying the phone, but that would be easy modularity when you need it.
posted by Loudmax at 5:17 PM on October 29, 2013


There's already some modularity creeping into the iPhone though. Square for payment systems, bluetooth joystick support, battery extenders, and a bunch of camera lens attachments.
posted by FJT at 6:50 PM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


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