Google is doing something brilliant with Project Ara. It is taking the mobile phone, something most of us can't live without, and attempting to disrupt an entire industry, while at the same time laying the groundwork to convert as many people as it can into makers.
The "maker movement" has been chugging along now in the geek zeitgeist for a handful of years. It's largely dominated by hobbies that include 3D printing, arduino, soldering, sawing, and sewing. In places like New York, maker culture, for better or worse, has been "hipsterised" to the point where it's starting to feel inaccessible to the rest of society.
In short, the maker movement is still very much a niche that continues to grow, albeit rather slowly.
Despite what the tech pundits say, technologies like 3D printing are still very much running on passion and not practicality. Until people can produce a piece of clothing instead of a desk ornament, most people won't be flocking to buy the latest 3D-printing wunderkind. However, phones are a completely different story. When you think about it, the idea of customising your phone didn't really exist until the launch of the Moto X, which lets you pick the colour, texture, and even wallpaper of your device via Moto Maker.
Now, Google wants to take the concept of customisation to an entirely new level with Project Ara, which in layman terms is a functional LEGO phone. Admittedly, that's a crude description, because Ara is one of the coolest ideas I've seen in a long time. It has the potential to completely transform the mobile industry. That said, it's just as likely that Project Ara will fail, or at the least become another element of the maker niche.
I'm guessing Google doesn't want that to happen, but it will be interesting to see where a modular phone fits into Google's long-term mobile strategy. My hope is that when next January comes and the first Ara phone is released, Google invests a lot of resources into making Ara accessible to everyone, including kids. To achieve that, Google finally needs to establish a bricks-and-mortar strategy – if not a full-service retail store, then at least temporary pop-up stores that invite people of all ages to come in and sit around a table covered in Phonebloks. I can't think of a better way to redefine the mobile phone industry and teach product design than to involve the consumer in the actual construction of the device, which based on the evidence so far, will be as easy as snapping LEGO blocks into place.
Google has been doing some impressive stuff when it comes to phones lately. With the Nexus line getting well-deserved acclaim along with a friendly price, Google can continue scoring wins with initiatives like Project Ara while we keep waiting for Apple to wow us for the first time in a while (and this is coming from an iPhone user).
However, the one thing Apple seems to be unbeatable at is marketing, or convincing you why you should pay more for its device. So to that end, I really hope Google pulls out all the stops for Ara if it truly believes it can impact the future of the mobile phone market. Come January, I'm really hoping I can go somewhere and start playing with my blocks, and then make a call or send a tweet with them.