Update 20 Jan, 2016: PhoneBloks is another modular phone project. This introduction is from 2013.

Update 8 Jan, 2016: TechTimes published a story on modular handhelds in November last year, which confirms that the FairPhone 2 is designed to be more modular than a conventional handheld. It also briefly mentions Project ARA, and another crowdfunded project called the PuzzlePhone. Their campaign ended in December last year, unfortunately falling far short of their ambitious funding target, but hopefully they continue with the project regardless.

Original Post

I haven’t really been onboard with the mobile revolution (handheld devices like “smartphones” and tablets), and one of my main objections has been the wastefulness of building computers that seem designed to be thrown away and replaced every couple of years. Most mobiles are not designed to last and difficult to repair; its often cheaper to buy a new device than to get one fixed. The trend towards storing user files and even personalization data “in the cloud”, rather than local storage, further reduces the motivation to repair. Even when people take really good care of their handhelds, they often become unusable after a couple of years anyway, because software development for both iThings and Androids is targeted towards newer models that exist in larger numbers.

Enter Project ARA, an initiative of Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP), a research group originally created by Motorola, but now part of the GoogleBeast. The project has created a modular handheld, in which components like screen, cameras, speakers, and batteries can be easily swapped out. This allows the average user to both repair and upgrades their own device, in the same way that the modular PC, with its standardized slots and sockets, and the ubiquitous USB socket, empowered users to chain together a combination of hardware for their specific needs.

For this to work, ATAP must have created a set of standardized package sizes, sockets, and slots, which new components must fit in order to work with a Project ARA device. I’m hoping that following the example of previous Google projects like the WebM multimedia format and WebRTC (Real-Time Communications), these standardized interfaces will be released as open standards, rather than being encumbered with patents, and that Google don’t plan to act as gatekeepers of what hardware is allowed to work with Project ARA-compatible devices, as Apple do with software on their iThings.

This modular innovation also has the potential to address one of my other major concerns about handhelds, including both internet-capable “smartphones” and old school “feature phones”. If cameras can be removable, so can microphones, cellular modems, wi-fi chips, and GPS chips. A user could choose to plug them into the phone only when they want to use them, vastly reducing the handhelds capacity to be always-on surveillance and tracking devices.

Because of this, I’m hoping this modular approach gets adopted by another handheld project, FairPhone. Their main concerns are about social justice. This includes wanting to make handhelds that are more durable, and repairable, and it seems to me that the modular approach of Project ARA is an excellent fit for that goal. Their other goals includes making their hardware using raw materials that support peaceful local economies rather than military dictators and rogue paramilitaries, ensuring all workers involved in designing and manufacturing handhelds have fair wages and working conditions, and ensuring the hardware they make can be easily recycled when it does finally wear out.

FairPhone also say they want to support “open source”, in order to defend the “open platform” approach to software development we are used to on PC, rather than the iThing approach where one hardware manufacturer controls acts as gatekeeper of all software development on the platform. So far they are shipping with Android, but it would be good to see them work on making their devices compatible with a 100% free mobile OS like Replicant.

Adopting a modular approach to hardware would mean making the device itself an open platform. This might seem to reduce the control FairPhone have over whether all compatible hardware addresses their other social justice concerns, but they could take on the role of a certifying organisation, like those that exist for organic food and fair trade, and encourage users to buy only FairPhone certified handhelds and components.

BTW Happy summer solstice to all my southern hemisphere readers, and to all northern hemisphere readers, happy winter solstice and new year (our new year in the south, like yours, really ought to be celebrated around the winter solstice, not the middle of summer).

Filed January 5th, 2016 under open hardware

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