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Component Supply May Be Moto PhoneBlok’s Achilles Heel

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.

12 comments on “Component Supply May Be Moto PhoneBlok’s Achilles Heel

  1. Daniel
    November 14, 2013

    “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.”

    Marc, idea is good but I don't know how much it's feasible. From customer point of view, it's not that much easy to plug new components because of compactable issue and software integration.

  2. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    November 14, 2013

    Increasingly, customer service/customer experience is getting more important to electronics OEMs. It's getting harder to differentiate completely on product speeds and feeds so they are looking to build better connections and loyalty to end users. If this works, i bet it's going to be a home run on that score. It's way beyond letting folks pick their own color.

  3. t.alex
    November 16, 2013

    There might be market for these phonebloks, and mostly are the geeky users. The key issue is Motorola has to standardize hardware interfacing signals as well as mechanical dimensions for all the components to inter-op. 

  4. ahdand
    November 17, 2013

    @t.alex: Im not sure whether Motorola has the capability to do so since they are kind of cornered in the market for not making in-roads. So first and the best thing to do is to find some path and make some in-roads before trying anything fancy.   

  5. t.alex
    November 17, 2013

    In the current saturated smartphone market, probably this is one of the bold moves Motorola can try. In the worst case, all the parts will come from the same manufacturer which is … Motorola 🙂 and you may still have a good phone 🙂

  6. _hm
    November 17, 2013

    This looks good concept for testing new prototypes. Each group working on modular design can test their design with this modular structure.

    Except for this, the product will be much more expensive and it it may be less green.

     

     

  7. Daniel
    November 17, 2013

    “There might be market for these phonebloks, and mostly are the geeky users. The key issue is Motorola has to standardize hardware interfacing signals as well as mechanical dimensions for all the components to inter-op. “

    There won't be any doubt about market requirement. But mobile manufactures knows well about the market strategy and they won't opt for such resizable products; it can affect their future products. They always prefer incremental models for sustainability.

  8. t.alex
    November 18, 2013

    Jacob, do you think with this model we can see some surprising players to join the market. For example who knows … Lego may join.

  9. Daniel
    November 18, 2013

    “do you think with this model we can see some surprising players to join the market. For example who knows … Lego may join.”

    Alex, do you think new players can take up the role as a challenge? No, because others won't allow them to grow like that.

  10. t.alex
    November 19, 2013

    Jacob, perhaps please elaborate on what you mean by “others won't allow them to grow like that”?

     

  11. Daniel
    November 19, 2013

    “perhaps please elaborate on what you mean by “others won't allow them to grow like that”?”

    Alex, others means the existing OEMs and service providers.

  12. speedo1456
    July 21, 2014

    All nice ideas but what the consumer really wants  is user-friendliness and compat ability. I think that Nokia got the message when we look at their new Windows phone.

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