alec molloyblog

I haven’t used Glass in a Month

or: How Google still wins by getting it wrong
“… No, Google is good at knowing what technology wants.”

I was sitting at a dinner table in the city a few weeks ago discussing Google, when my friend Edward made that statement.

For the last few months I’d been fascinated with Google’s latest efforts in natural-language interfaces; enough that I was almost ready to jump ship to Android to try them out. Apple’s high design has always held sway over me, but I felt they had been lagging behind on the information services front. Siri and iCloud left a lot to be desired—especially for users with most of their digital identity locked away on Google’s servers. I had my eye on an HTC One for a while, but hadn’t pulled the trigger yet for reasons that Edward’s comment finally made me realise.

My anxiety started with a Nexus 7. I bought it in February to test the waters before switching phones, and develop on. As a slave to Apple products for the last few years, I had been spoiled by a very human approach to devices. And though the Nexus 7 matched up to Apple’s counterpart on paper, the experience was in no way comparable. I played around with it for a while, but now it only gets attention when I need to do device testing.

I was disappointed, but I wasn’t sure why. All of Google’s pitches for it had made sense. The lower cost and tighter integration with their services made it seem like a no brainer. But that didn’t matter; I couldn’t stand using it.

A few months later… Glass

Ever since their first teaser video two years ago I had been obsessed with the idea of Glass, Google’s first foray into wearable computing. So when they announced the application to beta test I immediately applied, and a month later I received a message from Google informing me I had been accepted.

After committing to purchasing I was practically frothing at the mouth, waiting for my fitting day. All my free time was spent prototyping applications, and I brought the device up in conversation constantly (thanks to all my friends for putting up with me all those months).

Stepping into the world of Glass at the Mountain View campus (and later the New York “base camp” for a replacement) was like walking into a cult meeting. A cult where everyone wore Glass, and was super excited that you were super excited to join them. Not quite Apple store on launch day excited, but enough to make me uncomfortable. I spent about an hour getting fitted and being given a full demo by a very nice Glass “Guide” before venturing off into the wild.

My initial impressions of the device were positive. Voice commands worked surprisingly well, video quality was impressive, and the attention I got from passersby on the street was an added ego bonus.

I wore it as much as I could for the first week or so—only taking it off in restrooms, while sleeping and showering, and in meetings. I wore it to my college graduation, where I broadcasted live POV video of the ceremony to my family sitting back in the crowd. I used it to capture bike rides, my roommate’s antics, and silly moments like this. Friends were excited to try the device on for themselves, and I was excited to share in their excitement.

Though as the weeks passed, the novelty of being a novelty started to wear off. The attention I got became invasive, so I used it less in public. Anytime I wore Glass among friends, conversation would inevitably drift towards on the device and I found myself wanting to hide it. And the device’s new role as a status symbol for overprivileged white Valley males didn’t help.

As I became more critical, I realised Glass wasn’t as useful as I had been imagining. Voice recognition was incredibly good, but it still slipped up enough to make typing on my iPhone a relief. Having to carry around a battery back if I wanted a day’s charge wasn’t great either. But worst was the feeling of being limited by the interface. Information on the web isn’t structured to be conveyed in the highly concise manner Google requires for developers; complex questions require a lot of additional browsing that can be done much faster on a smartphone.

Even when I did wear Glass, I didn’t use it. The social awkwardness of talking to Glass in public had become unbearable. There were a few days when I wore it for a couple hours before realising it hadn’t even been turned on. Eventually, I spent days without giving Glass a thought before guilting myself into wearing it to justify the price tag.

I put Glass down on my bureau sometime in early September. And I haven’t worn it since.

Before I go any further, a quick history lesson: Google is known for pushing half-baked concepts out the door, and then quietly shuttering them. Take Google Wave: its noble purpose was to replace email with a more structured and digestible form of communication. But the chat/twitter/email mashup’s purpose was just so damn hard to explain.

Its real-time collaborative editing capabilities were technologically impressive, but it struggled to become anything more than a public curiosity. People were in awe of its magical powers, but didn’t know how it was supposed to make their life better.

Sound familiar?

Ripples. Not Waves.

Google didn’t know what users were going to do with Glass. Hence the whole “Glass Explorers” beta program. What they hopefully realise by now is that Glass doesn’t work as a consumer device. And privacy issues have little to do with it.

Glass is just super socially awkward.

A society that still makes fun of wearing bluetooth headsets isn’t going to be welcoming to an even more intrusive device. Google’s first attempt at “getting technology out of the way” has had the unfortunate side effect of inserting technology into every social interaction.

I often chose my phone over Glass not because of the shoddy technology, but rather out of a desire for discretion. Tearing into a string of voice commands in a Safeway aisle might seem futuristic the first few times, but self-consciousness started to get the better of me. This isn’t something that Google can patch in one of their monthly updates. There is a serious societal shift that needs to take place before Glass becomes a commercially viable consumer product.

It took years for the cell phone to achieve market saturation, and only then did it become acceptable to use the device as pervasively as we do today. Before saturation it was a novelty and a status symbol.

Google is good at knowing what technology wants. Their edge has always come from technological prowess, after which design and market success follow.

This “technology first” attitude is the reason for all their half-baked, misunderstood failures. The twist here is while their products might fail, the underlying technologies do not. Just as Wave transformed into Google Docs, so too will Glass transform into much more palatable (and perhaps successful) products.

While I seriously doubt a head-mounted wearable will find success as a consumer device anytime soon, Glass will likely live on in its current form as an enterprise product. But parts of Glass will start showing up in other Google products. And some already have.

Glass represents only part of a larger strategy by Google. Its failure will be trivial in their larger quest for natural-language search and frictionless access to services. Success comes from failing early and often. And nobody is better at doing that than Google.

I look back on my time using Glass with mixed feelings. Playing around on the bleeding edge was really cool, and I’ll never regret having had the opportunity to do so. But I’m done with it. Glass exists as a contradiction. It empowered me through access to information and a new sharing paradigm, but at the cost of contaminating proximate social interactions.

I don’t have the problems Google wanted to fix with Glass. I’m not the guy staring at my phone, recording video at concerts. I don’t impulsively check social media at the dinner table. In fact I hate people who do those things. And most importantly, I don’t believe becoming part-cyborg is going to solve all those issues.

Glass is trying to solve problems users have interfacing with technology, and technically they are making good progress. But human nature isn’t so easily conquered. We’re going to need a few more iterations. So here’s to trying again, Google.