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Google killed its Lego-like modular phone, but the man behind it is bringing the idea to a new project

Obsession
The Next Billion
Obsession
The Next Billion

Google has killed Project Ara, its ambitious plan to make a modular smartphone, with parts you could replace as they wore out or became obsolete. But the man who launched it isn’t giving up on the idea. Dan Makoski, who founded Ara, is now making modular phone cases—rather than whole phones—with a company called Nexpaq.

Nexpaq already makes phone cases that can be augmented with any of a dozen modules. These can add battery life, increase storage, and add things like temperature or air-quality sensors. The Hong Kong-based firm got its start as a Kickstarter project, raising about $280,000 from backers. It has since raised an undisclosed amount from the venture-capital arm of Maxim Integrated, a large semiconductor maker.

Makoski, who created Ara while he was head of design at Google’s Advanced Technology and Products Division (ATAP), has now joined Nexpaq as its head of design and community. His goal: to bring what he calls “mass individualization” to the market. The idea is to turn mass manufacturing (“making one thing a million times”) on its head, and instead make products that each user can customize themselves.

Nexpaq CEO Jason Ko (left), Dan Makoski (center), and Nexpaq co-founder Hubertus Wasmer (Dan Makoski)

That was supposed to happen at Google. One Ara mobile-phone frame would be the foundation for any number of custom modules. It would disrupt the smartphone product cycle—each frame would last longer—while creating a market for third-party modules. It would be like an app store for phone hardware. But the project, begun in 2012, faltered and was shut down this year—reportedly because Google wanted to “streamline [its] hardware efforts,” according to Reuters.

If Google couldn’t bring a modular phone to the market, what makes Nexpaq—an upstart that’s promising to deliver its products in the first quarter of next year, after missing shipping deadlines—any different? Chief executive Jason Ko says it’s down to user psychology. “Trying to convince a user to throw away their phone and buy a new one is much harder than that same user buying an accessory,” he says. And firms like LG already have well reviewed modular smartphones on the market.

Still, Makoski sees Nexpaq as his best shot at getting his vision of a customizable phone to the market. “When I … actually held a Nexpaq case and Batpaq [the firm’s battery pack product] for the first time, I immediately knew that I wanted to partner,” he said. “The industrial design, software integration, developer tools and ability to actually ship product were all much farther along than anyone else in the modular space.”

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