One of Google’s noteworthy traits that is admired by some and detested by many is the company’s willingness to abandon products. From hugely popular web services to an acquired hardware company, Google is notorious for pulling the plug on products with little fanfare or notice. Proponents suggest this process allows Google to rapidly shift focus without being stretched too thin. Others suggest that Google suffers from a form of “corporate attention deficit disorder” or quickly abandons products that don’t directly contribute to fueling growth in the company’s core advertising and search business. A turndown in the frenetic pitch of news around Google Glass, the eyeglass-based wearable computer, has some worried that Google is preparing to abandon the once-hot product. What’s going on here?
Google is ready for Glass, but are you?
One interesting facet of Google’s approach to releasing Glass was the widespread pre-release rollout of the product, which occurred over two years ago, a lifetime in mobile devices. Immediately after a flashy announcement, Google began providing early Glass devices to developers, followed shortly by a more general release. Techies, futurists, and celebrities could be found tweeting images captured by their Glasses, and it seemed we’d all be wearing one, based on the surrounding hype.
The continuing pre-release gestation period of Glass was noteworthy since it was on such a long timeline compared to most other consumer electronics. Whether intentional or not, Google likely realized that Glass was not just another consumer device, but a change in the way human beings interact socially. Wearable computing devices are a fairly new concept, and Glass pushed this emerging category to its limits. A Glass user could potentially record video and audio of their every interaction, or alternatively, be watching cat videos on YouTube while they’re supposed to be paying attention to their boss, loved one, or traffic a dozen yards beyond the steering wheel.
In many ways, wearable computing devices are pushing social constructs and norms far more than they’re pushing technology. Tiny WiFi chips have been vetted far more extensively than body-mounted video cameras, and far more is known about small, high-resolution screens versus the ideal user experience that’s presented on those screens. Lending credence to this line of thinking is that there have been relatively few concerns expressed about the technology behind Glass; most of the concerns center around the social aspects of the product.
The smart watch: a safer alternative?
As news of Glass has all but disappeared, Google has seemingly jumped headlong into the smart watch foray, with the release of a smart watch-specific build of Android dubbed Android Wear. This looks to be a fairly measured approach to wearable mobile devices by Google. With the success of wearables like the Fitbit and Pebble, watches seem to be a safe form factor. There are no cameras, notifications are not thrust into your line of vision, and interactions with a wrist-mounted device have over a century of social precedent. Still, there are opportunities to break new ground. The rules around a watch-sized user interface are still being written, and it’s unclear how the smartphone and wearable device should ultimately interact. What information is best presented on the phone? Can the wearable exist without the phone? Which interface is best used for which function?
The good news for consumers, device makers, and software developers is that the rules on wearables have yet to be written, and there’s a chance to create software, services, and experiences that have never been done before. Basic functions like pinch-to-zoom and inertia scrolling simply don’t exist, and while the Facebooks and Twitters of the world that made their fortunes with the smartphone revolution struggle to translate their apps to wearable devices, opportunities for new competitors abound.
Clearly, there is a significant change underway in how we interact with our mobile devices, and how those devices continue to impact how we interact with each other. Whether Glass makes it to the mainstream or not is largely irrelevant to the current state of wearable computing, since even a “stillborn” Glass gives Google a massive advantage in terms of the social and behavioral aspects of wearable computing. Rather than worrying about whether or not Glass has been abandoned, it’s far more interesting to consider what Google may have learned from Glass, and how we can apply it to creating the next generation of mobile devices and services.