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I hope Motorola’s build-your-own smartphone idea catches on

Motorola’s Project Ara would sell you an Android phone the way many of us buy PCs: as separate, swappable components that we can use to upgrade and customize as we please.

Think about it: The PC I’m typing this on has a 15-year-old keyboard. The case is about 10 years old. The monitor is about five years old. The motherboard, CPU, memory, and SSD are about three years old. When I need to upgrade, I have a great deal of freedom about what I replace. If the SSD is still big enough, I can keep it. I’ll definitely keep the monitor, keyboard, and case. They all still work well. I can basically build a new PC every few years for a couple hundred dollars. Sometimes less.

Consider the economics of a cell phone, by contrast. When it was new, my phone cost $500. The carrier subsidized it, but I still paid for it. If I went to sell it now, I could probably get $100 for it. Then I’d go buy another $500 phone.

But think about why I would want a new phone. The CPU is slow and it doesn’t have enough RAM. The camera is fine. The screen is fine. It makes calls fine, so that hardware is fine. Even the speakers and battery are still fine.

So, rather than sell a phone for $100 to buy another one for $500, what if I could swap about $200 worth of parts and make it work better?

I’d be game for that. I’d be even more game if they’d extend the idea to tablets, and the parts were interchangeable. Then any time I upgraded something, any parts that were better than what I had in use somewhere else in the family could get an upgrade, too. I could migrate CPUs and other parts, replacing anything worse than what I have left over, and then discard the oldest, slowest stuff.

And it would be nice to be able to only build in what you use. Don’t need bluetooth? Leave it out. Content with a 1-megapixel camera? Put that in, and don’t spend unnecessarily on a 4-megapixel model. Need lots of memory and multiple cores but don’t care about 3D gaming? Skip the Snapdragon and instead buy the fastest Rockchip CPU available and max out the memory.

I like where this is heading.

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