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Motorola unveils Project Ara for custom smartphones

The highly modular approach aims to let you swap in items such as keyboard, battery, or display so that your handset stays up-to-date much longer than today's smartphones.

An example of a Project Ara customized handset.

Motorola has announced a new initiative to help smartphone users take handset customization beyond ringtones, wallpaper, and body colors to its very form and function.

The Google-owned handset company on Monday announced Project Ara, a free, open hardware platform for creating highly modular smartphones. An endoskeleton, or structural frame, holds the smartphone modules of the owner's choice, such as a display, keyboard, or extra battery. The approach should allow users to swap out malfunctioning modules or upgrade as innovations emerge, providing a handset that stays up-to-date much longer than today's smartphones.

"Our goal is to drive a more thoughtful, expressive, and open relationship between users, developers, and their phones," Motorola wrote in a company blog post. "To give you the power to decide what your phone does, how it looks, where and what it's made of, how much it costs, and how long you'll keep it."

Early design ideas from Project Ara. Motorola

This isn't Motorola's first foray into smartphone customization, though Project Ara takes things much further. Over the summer, the company launched its Moto Maker service, which lets buyers of Moto X phones indulge their build-to-order desires, mixing and matching body and interface features including onboard memory, wallpaper, and front, back, and accent colors for the device's shell.

In the works for more than a year, Project Ara recently partnered with Dave Hakkens, the creator of Phonebloks. Although still largely in its infancy, Phonebloks' build-your-own-phone approach has garnered plenty of interest online, with nearly a million people signing up to support it.

"We want to do for hardware what the Android platform has done for software: create a vibrant third-party developer ecosystem, lower the barriers to entry, increase the pace of innovation, and substantially compress development timelines," Motorola said in its blog post.

The project plans to begin inviting developers to create modules for the platform in the coming months. It also expects to release an alpha version of a module developers kit this winter.