Google’s Glass product is capturing headlines yet again, this time for a presentation given by Google’s Timothy Jordan, who demoed the product at SXSW on Monday. Jordan walked the audience through the process of taking and sharing photos, checking the weather, and using integrated apps, such as the New York Times, Evernote, and Path. Reports have focused on the sudden remembrance that Glass comes equipped with a touchpad and the upcoming flood of notifications, while an op-ed published over the weekend compares Glass to Apple’s Newton, a predecessor to current post-PC devices.
Each issue presented is a problem unto itself. Constantly touching our faces — or something on our faces, anyway — is probably going to take some getting used to. Notifications are hard enough to tame on smartphones, tablets, and PCs. And comparing anything to the Newton is the most respectful kiss of death, fatal lip service that damns an unreleased product to obsolescence. But each is merely a symptom or a miscalculation related to a bigger problem: Feature bloat.
“My skepticism is rooted in one idea: For $1,500 (or $1,000 or even $500), the Google Glass will have to do certain tasks significantly better than the smartphone justify the price. And in the next two years, it may have to compete with many other devices like wearable watches that fulfill some of the same tasks, too,” writes Andrew Chen. “And I’m skeptical that there’s enough tasks where it’ll be worth it, and I’m skeptical that using voice as the primary input will be good enough to drive the whole interface.”
Of all the charges levied against Glass, the “What’s it going to do better than a smartphone?” question, which seems to be rhetorical more often than not, is the most damning. We already have phones in our pockets, tablets in our bags, and PCs on our desks, and many of us are — understandably — concerned about adding yet another device to the mix. But it’s worth remembering that even the smartphone took some time before it became, well, smart.
The original iPhone shipped without the App Store and relied on a handful of Apple-built applications. Early adopters were able to surf the Web (on blazingly fast EDGE connections!), do email, and perform other mundanities. That was it. There were no third-party applications to transform the iPhone into anything more than Apple intended it to be, and yet now the device is home to one of the most applauded ecosystems in computing history.
Apple needed to ship the iPhone without third-party applications. Explaining that the iPhone’s touch-screen could replace a full-blown keyboard was enough of a challenge. Apple didn’t need to explain that the iPhone could become a level, a portable music studio, or a window to the stars in 2007. It simply needed to prove to the world that the iPhone mattered.
Google is in a similar position with Glass, but it faces its own handicap: smartphones. Apple introduced a new category that brought computers to many consumers’ pockets for the first time, and as iOS and Android have developed consumers have grown accustomed to increasingly-capable devices.
Which is why we expect Glass to do everything imaginable even though the product hasn’t even launched. I’m just as guilty of this as anyone, as I’ve thought “Oh, hey, it’d be cool if Glass did this,” or “Man, Glass had better do this, or…” on occasion.
Though Glass relies on the smartphone — at least for now — Jordan’s demo seemed to be an assurance that Glass was more than an accessory for other devices.
Unfortunately, the line between a dearth of functionality and feature bloat is thin, especially on a device that is always in our periphery. Thus Ellis Hamburger’s fear of “death by notifications.” Our devices already buzz, beep, and chime for Tweets, photos, weather, emergencies, game requests, and just about any other excuse a developer can come up with for capturing our attention. Adding another buzzer sounds like a veritable nightmare.
Wearable computing is the future. Unfortunately, it’s a future seen only through the lens of the present, where we are all able to do, know, or experience almost anything imaginable via screens that look better than ever before. It’s no surprise that Google is trying to match many of those functionalities — hell, it has to if Glass is going to gain any significant traction.
But let’s hope Google doesn’t stain its clean surface in its attempts to do everything right on launch day. Consumers need to know exactly what Glass is before they can comprehend everything it is or might be able to do. If Glass is the-next-iPhone level awesome, it won’t matter that it can’t do everything imaginable as soon as it’s unboxed.