Why the ‘iPod godfather’ is needed to correct Google’s vision for Glass

16 Jan 2015

Tony Fadell, CEO, Nest at the 2014 Web Summit. Photo by Web Summit/Flickr

Google Glass isn’t gone, but it has retired from the limelight for now as Google regroups and, hopefully, learns a valuable lesson on the difference between building products and developing software.

There are few people more qualified to teach the Google Glass team this lesson than Tony Fadell, the man known as the godfather of the iPod.

And so, a reshuffle at Google will see the Glass team move out of Google X research labs and into a division of its own under manager Ivy Ross. They will now report to Fadell, who was conscripted by Google through the company’s US$3.2bn acquisition of Nest one year ago.

From Google I/O to Glassholes

In a Google+ post shared by the Google Glass team on Thursday, the wearable technology pioneers attempted to downplay the project’s demise. Though it’s not entirely wrong to say that Google Glass is “graduating” from Google X, the context in which this is happening tells a convincing tale of misled product development.

The team’s post harks back to the beginning of the project, when Google Glass was “little more than a scuba mask attached to a laptop”. In these early days in the Google X research incubator, Glass was under wraps from the general public, free to evolve without their scrutiny.

Then, at the Google I/O developer conference in June 2012, co-founder Sergey Brin first introduced Google Glass with a combination of bravado and skydiving.   

Fever took hold and high-profile technophiles excitedly signed up to fly the flag for the next revolution in technology. Noted tech commentator Robert Scoble was one of them, but a photo of him in the shower wearing Google’s goggles really put a dampener on things.

Robert Scoble and Google Glass

Where did it all go wrong for Google Glass?

At the time of its introduction, Google Glass was streaks ahead in the field of wearable tech. Smartwatches were relatively unheard of in the consumer market and fitness tracking devices were just starting to take off.

Through the Glass Explorer programme, which launched in the US in 2013, Google invited users to beta test its game-changing new product, and to pay US$1,500 for the privilege. While assurances were made that the final consumer model would cost much less on release, this price-tag limited Glass in its early days to an elite sector of individuals.

As well as an economic barrier to entry, Glass also came burdened with regulatory confusion and its presence in the public sphere caused discomfort for businesses and individuals.

Google Glass

Image via Google Glass/Google+

By the summer of 2014, Google had managed to expand the Explorer Programme to the UK, but Glass was being restricted from certain spaces before the product was even freely available. It was as if the team hadn’t foreseen the numerous complications of introducing a device of endless distraction and documentation into the real world.

There were concerns around driving while wearing Glass, the privacy of individuals in the presence of someone in control of a surreptitious camera, and the piracy opportunities afforded by the same on visits to the cinema.

Glass was unfamiliar, it was untrustworthy, and it was uncool.

Google signals a retreat

Hoping to turn around the seemingly doomed fate of Glass, Google drafted in artist, designer and marketer Ivy Ross to lead the team in May 2014. However, her impact on the product remains to be seen.

The expected date for a consumer release had long past and, in November, it was revealed that the only four physical stores selling Google Glass had been shut down. The Explorer Programme will close on 19 January, and a last-minute grab for Glass in the coming days is unlikely.

Google will continue to support those companies using Glass, such as med-tech start-up Remedy, and development will go on, but it will be conducted as it should have been all along: quietly and behind closed doors.

Ivy Ross, Head of Google Glass

Ivy Ross, head of Google Glass. Photo via Google Glass on Google+

Google’s gadget inexperience

Unlike tech rival Apple, Google’s experience with hardware development is limited. Its own online store is littered with mobile and wearable devices made by LG and Samsung, or other hardware from acquisitions such as Motorola and Nest. Apart from the Chromecast streaming stick, Google hasn’t single-handedly produced a gadget of note.

With Glass, Google tried to follow a software development strategy with a consumer hardware product, and there are a few killer differences that nailed this idea to the wall.

For starters, the many users invited to sign up for Gmail weren’t asked to pay a whopping fee to help beta-test a service. Also, iterative updates to software are far easier to roll out than improvements to a physical product.

Something Tony Fadell can certainly say about the iPod – a device that changed how users consume music – is that it was primed and ready for public consumption at launch. The same cannot be said for Google Glass.

Is it game over for Glass?

While it failed as a game-changer, it’s not necessarily game over for Google Glass. Just as our own John Kennedy predicted, Glass is broken but it can be fixed. Opportunities abound for this kind of technology in areas as varied as gaming, sport, medicine and enterprise solutions, which Google had begun exploring with its Glass at Work programme.

Tony Fadell, CEO, Nest

Tony Fadell, CEO of Nest and ‘godfather of the iPod’, photographed in February 2012. Photo by Pierre Lecourt via Flickr

Google still purportedly believes that internet-connected eyewear can take off as a consumer product and will continue to work on improving Glass to this end, though no timeline has been set for new products.

In a statement provided to various media outlets including BBC News, Fadell said, “Early Glass efforts have broken ground and allowed us to learn what’s important to consumers and enterprises alike. I’m excited to be working with Ivy to provide direction and support as she leads the team and we work together to integrate those learnings into future products.”

These words will be little comfort to the Glass Explorers, though, who are US$1,500 short and earned little but the honour of being the world’s first ‘Glassholes’.

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.