Mobility

Google Glass: Will its fate be Tablet PC or first iPhone?

The hottest tech product of 2013 has started to lose some its luster on the eve of CES. Still, there are couple things to keep in mind about Google Glass.

 
Google Glass in San Francisco
Image: Jason Hiner/TechRepublic

This was the week the tide turned against 2013's most widely-hyped technology product.

Google Glass sauntered through last year as the tech world's golden child. Despite the "glasshole" meme and some natural shivers over privacy, Glass was tacitly crowned tech's "this is the future" product of 2013.

But, on the eve of the Consumer Electronics Show where wearables are shaping up to be the hottest category, larger doubts are starting to arise about Glass.

Robert Scoble, who was more responsible than anyone for hyping Glass with his effusive early review and his photo of using Glass in the shower, is now saying that Glass adoption is "doomed" in 2014 because of price and that Google needs to "reset expectations" to help the public see Glass as an experiment.

Following Scoble's pronouncements, Jay Yarow wrote in Business Insider: "There's a good chance that Glass is a fundamentally flawed product."

Wired's Mat Honan, who has been using Glass for as long as Scoble and is generally bullish about wearables, wrote a piece on Dec. 30 called I, Glasshole: My Year With Google Glass in which he said: "My Glass experiences have left me a little wary of wearables because I'm never sure where they're welcome. I'm not wearing my $1,500 face computer on public transit where there's a good chance it might be yanked from my face. I won't wear it out to dinner, because it seems as rude as holding a phone in my hand during a meal. I won't wear it to a bar. I won't wear it to a movie. I can't wear it to the playground or my kid's school because sometimes it scares children."

But, another Scoble comment may have raised more doubts about Glass than anything else. Robert wrote, "I rarely see Google employees wearing theirs anymore... I just hope it doesn't mean that Google's average employee won't support it. That is really what killed the tablet PC efforts inside Microsoft."

All in all, I think that's actually a useful comparison. I used Microsoft's Tablet PC during its heyday. I've also been using Google Glass. But, I think it's also worth pulling another product into the conversation: Apple's first iPhone.

At launch, all three products were fascinating, full of potential, and fundamentally flawed. After the initial novelty wore off shortly after launch, I ended up shelving all three of them.

The Tablet PC felt like a great idea but I rarely ever used the digital pen and so it ended up feeling like an underpowered and overpriced laptop. I kept going back and trying it, even as later models improved the concept, but pen computing never stuck. Most people apparently had the same experience and the tablet market was eventually usurped by less expensive multi-touch tablets.

The original 2007 iPhone was breathtakingly innovative but minimally useful. It was by far the easiest phone to use. Almost immediately, toddlers across the globe quickly learned how to swipe-to-unlock the parent's phone, tap the photos app, and swipe across the screen to flip through photos. Unfortunately, the first iPhone also ran on slow-as-a-dog 2G networks, couldn't handle corporate email very well, hardly ran any software other than Apple's built-in apps, and it's on-screen keyboard was awkward at best. Still, when I quit using it after initial testing and went back to a BlackBerry, I said about that first iPhone, "I bet future versions of this thing are going to be amazing." And, obviously they were. It went on to become the best-selling smartphone in the world.

That brings us to Google Glass. I was initially impressed that Google broke through barriers and was able to get a Heads-up Display (HUD) into something that wasn't a massive pair of goggles. Still, my impression in April 2013 was that Glass itself was hideously awkward to wear in public and the software platform was pretty limited.

My opinion improved with Glass 2.0 in November 2013. It took a big leap forward by adding more core functionality and apps, and the updated version of the hardware was made to integrate with standard glasses frames. Still, it's not a very intuitive product to use and the awkwardness barrier is going to take years to overcome until the HUD can fade into something more subtle and society adjusts to the idea of it being there.

SEE: Google Glass Corporate Policy template from Tech Pro Research

So, will Glass suffer the fate of pen computing or be a harbinger like the first multitouch smartphone? Will it be useful to a few die-hard enthusiasts or is it destined to create a whole new phenomenon in computing?

There are moments of brilliance when Glass almost nails it, such as overlays of driving directions and timely data popping up in reminders and alerts. The simplicity, automation, and usefulness hit me over the head in those moments, few as they were. Still, that makes me see HUD as destined to become a technology for the masses. However, it's not necessarily something you wear every waking hour. It's going to be most useful when people are doing something active or are out in public.

Google obviously has a head start, but whether Glass becomes the HUD that captures the masses is a question that's going to take years to play out. Google has far from cornered the market in this category.

Glass will not be a billion dollar product in 2014. That's not what's great about it. And, I don't believe Google has ever had those kind of ambitions for it, at least not yet. The beauty of Google Glass is that it's one of the world's first public-facing research and development projects. It was almost as if Google was saying to all of us, "This is so cool we just couldn't wait any longer to show it to all of you!"

At the earliest stage possible, Google allowed us to see the way it's thinking about the next great leap in technology. And, Google not only showed off the technology, but allowed enthusiasts to experience it and provide feedback as part of the R&D process. That bit of radical transparency could turn out to be more influential than the product itself.

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About

Jason Hiner is Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about how technology is changing the way we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.

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