Maybe it was guerrilla marketing. Or maybe it was the rare case of a big company -- Motorola -- inspired by a graduate student's idealistic idea. Whatever drove last month's announcement of Project Ara, the year-long effort to build a modular, customizable cellphone, its supply implications are serious.
Here's the story: A few months ago a video went viral explaining a project by Dave Hakkens, a student at Eidhoven's Design Institute in the Netherlands. Here's the video, which starts with a supply chain-type argument about mobile phone components, and the tendency to throw out perfectly good components.
Hakkens proposed a phone built on a blank base designed to receive lego-like "bloks" (thus, "PhoneBloks"). If you want a bigger battery, you plug in a bigger battery. If you care about the camera, you get a really nice camera. If you want more memory, you plug in a blok with more memory, and so forth.
The cartoony video suggests the bloks could be done on an open platform, allowing independent developers and companies to throw themselves at mobile phone design, using a shared set of components. Nearly 20 million people have viewed the video.
The problem, of course, is that a phone isn't an app: hardware isn't software. You need someone to make the blocks, and you need to make them at sufficient scale to bring the prices down to compete with stock phones -- iPhones, Galaxies, HTCs -- and their efficient, highly evolved, price-shaving supply chains.
In part owing to the supply chain issue, Hakkens's notion just seemed like a great idea for a Master's thesis, but not something people could actually hope to buy any time soon. And then it came out that Motorola announced that it had been talking to Hakkens as far back as a year ago, and launched Project Ara to actually build the thing.
Add to the thickening plot that Motorola mobile is itself owned by, ahem, Google, and things start to get much more intriguing from both a supply and design standpoint. Suddenly you have the people behind Android, and a longstanding mobile brand, in the mix. Both of whom need a breakthrough against Apple.
Still for the PhoneBlok system to really be viable in a binary Android/Apple world, its backers would have to build a component supply chain that responds to open-source creativity, while still being off-the-rack available. If one component's a sudden hit -- a 17 year old in Lithuania figures out how to make a $15 battery that lasts a month -- you need to be able to spin up that supply in literally days, everywhere. That's a lot more complex than saying, "How many iPhone 5s can we sell?" It's saying, "how many combinations of every possible phone preference, including some we haven't even considered, can we make available in 48 hours, forever?"
Motorola, and by extension Google, seem to think they can make that happen. Or at least are willing to try. From a design aspect, the challenge will be making a phone that also looks good -- a lot of phone supply is based on new design, not new functionality. No one will want to look like they're talking through their kid's leftover Playmobile kit.
There's also the timing question. Saying "the iPad Mini will hit the market in November" is one thing. Saying "an endless combination of Bloks is always available," is quite another. If you're mixing and matching parts in the PhoneBlok store, you can't have some be available and some on a week delay, or the concept doesn't really work. No one's ever tried the salad bar approach to mobile phone design.
Still, the idea, for suppliers as much as developers, could be revolutionary. It could also be threatening to the existing Apple/Android hegemony -- if the supply can meet the demand the developer community with surely present.
The encouraging thing is that Google surely knows this. Motorola mobile, which lives and dies by its supply chain, knows this even more intimately. And to be sure, Apple and Samsung all know this. It will be interesting to see if the existing mobile business, built on the idea of marrying professional design to just-in-time supply -- and frowning deeply at efforts to modify stock phones -- will nod in the idea's direction at all. It's only been a few days.
Motorola hasn't released dates or benchmarks for the project. If it does work, even as a minority platform, it will be awhile yet. That could be read as a delay to work out a concept that's still half-baked. But there's another way to read it: In a year or two, they have to spin up a reliable supply of components for something totally new, totally custom, and totally untried. It's been awhile since anyone's redesigned both the phone and the supply lines needed to produce one. We'll see.