As Glass becomes publicly available for 24 hours, what is Google’s endgame with hardware?

By James Robinson , written on April 14, 2014

From The News Desk

For one day only tomorrow you have the opportunity to pay $1,500 for your very own pair of Google Glass. This isn’t the much vaunted mass market release of Glass that the company has been promising for 2014, but it is notable for being the first time Glass has been publicly available.

It’s a steep price to pay for a consumer device, but it is the same amount of money that the first 10,000 Glass explorers paid for the privilege. Google is billing it, technically, as another round of its Explorer program. That high price tag makes more sense when you view how much consumer-level friction there still is to Glass - getting ripped off tech writer’s faces and such - against much more enthusiastic industry adoption. NYPD is testing Glass, as are the Air Force, various surgeons and insurance salesmen. Google is also set to target the workplace directly, with a ‘Glass for Work’ program. Tomorrow’s 24-hour window will likely be much bigger for enterprise and developers than it is for budding entrants to the rarified air of Glass-wearing.

Tomorrow’s brief shopping window is one step closer again to a real sale date for Google Glass. Reportedly, Google is lining up a consumer retail store in Soho, New York. The company has self-driving cars waiting in the wings as the next moonshot invention from its Google X labs likely to be ready for consumer use (at some vague, yet-to-be announced point). Google bought eight robotics companies in 2013. Just today, it announced its purchase of Titan Aerospace, which manufactures high-altitude drones.

These developments, assessed as a cluster, would strongly suggest that Google is starting to fancy itself as a hardware player. But how much Google’s endgame with this new technology really centers around it making endless runs of Glass and developing the infrastructure to sell cars itself is up for debate.

As its top brass has bragged in the past, Google already is one of the largest hardware manufacturers in the world through building the servers that power its web services. But Google’s largest hardware plays to date have been platform moves in disguise. Google builds massive computers to power its web servers. It bought Android only as a trojan horse for its own web applications.

What Google’s endgame is for its new toys, only it can really say. But, its partnership with Luxottica -- which makes Ray Bans and Oakley sunglasses -- to make the actual glasses that Google’s tech will be adapted into suggests that these are again platform moves.

Historically, Google cares more about setting itself up so its operating system and services mediate your everyday experience than it does about selling you the toys that do it. This is a company, after all, that makes almost its entire living selling ads.

As Glass hits the buying public, temporarily tomorrow but in the future likely for good, and its new technology leaks out behind it, it is a good reminder that it is not the thing itself that matters, but the information the company gains from you using it.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]