You may have noticed there’s been a bit of a backlash regarding the privacy implications of Google’s latest “diversion”, Google Glass. It seems that once people realized that The Borg could be photographing, videoing or otherwise documenting their interactions with normal people, they might have a problem with it. Note that it doesn’t even need to be the case that they are: wearing these things suggests the possibility, which is enough to be off-putting. Defenders say that it’s the future, and that may be, but in the present (Google claims they’ll be available by the end of the year), Google’s product suffers from a disconnect between the way the real world works and their vision for it.
This is pretty standard when it comes to Google. They’re a company that doesn’t release products that operate well in a system – whether that system is composed of industry players, regulators or taken in a broader social context. There are exceptions, such as Search and Gmail, and maybe Google Fiber, but these products were so far ahead of anything else when they were introduced (not to mention free or insanely cheap) that they dominated the market, much like the iPhone did in 2007. Google Search is arguably (I believe it is) still the best search engine, with over 60% of the current U.S. market and an even more dominating presence overseas, and Gmail has an entrenched base that keeps its users hooked into the Google ecosystem. It has swelled the company’s coffers, allowing it the freedom to blow money into other markets – with the Prime Directive being the acquisition of more and more of its users’ information – without much fear of competitive failure. But when it comes to “what’s next?”, after the ooh and ahhs of the neckbeard contingent transition to the intelligent scrutiny of the average consumer, the answer consistently disappoints. Let’s take a look at some examples:
“Hey there, TMA – haven’t you heard Android is ‘winning’?” you might ask, to which I’d reply, after a glib “Only 17 times a day from the tech press; winning at what?” Let’s define “winning” the way Google would. Google released the Android operating system in an attempt to gain in the mobile space the kind of stranglehold they had on desktop search. It was built for mass-adoption and timed to take advantage of the sucking carrier wound created by Apple’s exclusivity with AT&T. It was free (Microsoft tithing notwithstanding), open to
bastardization skinning by OEMs and similar enough *cough* to iOS to gain market share quickly. Android’s bazillion handsets (again, a byproduct of its being a free, hackable OS) still intermittently take the majority of smartphone sales every quarter. But the failure of its intended purpose – to get search share in the mobile market – belies its impressive market share. Study after study show that when it comes to data use, Apple’s iOS products absolutely crush Android’s share. Android’s penetration into the enterprise market has been even more abysmal. Excluding the de minimis population of neckbeard freedom fighters, people buy Android phones as a cheap alternative to the iPhone. Unsurprisingly, people that buy a cheap shartphone tend to use them like cheap shartphones. Android’s efforts to get its data hooks into users with features like Google Now have made little difference, partially due to the platform’s ungodly fragmentation. Google simply can’t lock in its vacuum nozzle because OEMs and carriers are a million times more concerned about getting people to buy another phone, rather than making the 6 month-old phone they have better. Andy Rubin can bray about activations all he wants: when considered in the context of its intended purpose, Android is an unmitigated failure.
Remember the promise of GoogleTV? You could have access to all those networks’ internet content in addition to being able to search the internet on your TV. But if Android OEMs’ skinning and not updating was passive-aggressive, the networks response was downright chilly: they slammed the door to their content in Google’s face, leaving them as little more than boxes for watching YouTube – for twice or three times as much as an AppleTV. Google’s failure was as inevitable as Apple’s failure to transition the AppleTV into anything more than a hobby. Content is king and, for the time being, the royalty wants their wares distributed through a cable box. Instead of taking a measured approach and leveraging a body of for-purchase or rental content like Apple did with iTunes, Google chucked out a product with no thought as to what content they were going to contribute to it. Google Play has arguably made this better, but the GoogleTV horse has already left the stable – and made a beeline for the glue factory. Google can’t even get TV manufacturers to adopt its OS. Turns out when OEMs can stick apps from Netflix, HBO Go and Hulu on their kit themselves, there’s nothing Google can offer to differentiate itself from something the panel-makers can control directly. GoogleTV is just another category of devices lining the Best Buy clearance rack.
Nexus Q/Chromebook Pixel
What would happen if Google designed its own hardware? Turns out it’d be a pretty choice piece of kit – maybe with some curious shortcomings and some questionable superfluidity – but still some impressive hardware. What would happen if Google released this hardware at premium price points and loaded with beta OS’s whose prior adoption could generously be described as “niche.” We’ve seen it once already. The Nexus “Born in the USA” Q was a quirky GoogleTV orb that cost $299 and was foisted upon a puzzled Google I/O crowd last year. Google decided that their set-top box failure had to be due to the shoddy build quality of the kit designed by OEMs (or perhaps OEMs didn’t make them anymore because their CEO’s wanted to keep their jobs), so they made their own. It was a home theater device designed to stream content – with a built-in subwoofer. It required an Android phone to be functional. Its video playback performance was cringe-inducing. The Q is pretty much what the Chromebook Pixel is going to be: a nice-for-Google level of build quality for a product that’s totally out of sync with its market.
The self-driving car
Perhaps one of the most un-Google endeavors undertaken by Google is the self-driving car. As a concept, it’s pretty cool. The blind, the elderly and those with severe mobility impairments could soon gain unprecedented autonomy. Google claims will be ready in 3-5 years and has already obtained permission by the state of Nevada to operate them on public roads (for testing only). The problem with the cars, like so many of Google’s good ideas, is that it doesn’t consider context. Driverless cars won’t gain traction for at least a decade. And the first pedestrian to get laced by a Sergeyru? Tack on another 10. If I’m a regulator or politician considering the prospect of letting these things onto our roads, am I really going to be the person that greenlights having Google pilot the leading cause of non-medical deaths in the U.S.? Google can’t keep malware out of their own app store; does this country really feel great about having them drive our cars? It’s great that Google is doing this, but if they expect any fruits from this labor, they better be taking a loooooong view. Here’s hoping that search monopoly keeps that fire hose of cash flowing, because they’re going to be blowing its inheritance well into the 2020s – or until they abruptly cancel the initiative like they do with half their services. Which brings us back to Glass…
Google’s whole “less obtrusive” schtick it’s trying to sling when talking about Glass is a crock of shit. As several smart people have mentioned, having a display less than an inch away from your eyeball all the time is the opposite of less obtrusive. Smartphones may pull 50% of your attention away from what you’re doing 20% of the time, but even with less active engagement, Glass sits on your face 100% of the time you’re using it. And the people you interact with that see these things on your face? What is the message you’re sending them? Google’s Glass, despite the Bizzaro world comments, are an attempt to capture more of your attention because attention translates into the location data, consumer preferences and search results that fuel their business model. In increasingly intimate ways, Google wants to know you. Really know you. With flops like Android and GoogleTV, Google has shown that they don’t understand how to work with partners to deliver a great – and, for them, profitable – experience. The Nexus Q and Chromebook Pixel showed that they’re not so hot at doing it on their own either. Google Glass demonstrates that the company doesn’t understand the etiquette of social engagement, which you’d expect given the demeanor of its founders. With the exception of the aging core businesses that provide the company all of its wealth, every consumer-facing initiative Google has pursued has shown that they don’t seem to quite get it.