Though Google's new technology was once hailed as revolutionary, product disappointment has set in and technology watchers are predicting that Google Glass is doomed.
PARIS — After months of being inseparable from his Google Glass, Google co-founder Sergey Brin appeared at an event a few weeks ago without the smart eyewear. That's all the tech world needed to conclude that Google had lost interest in its much-ballyhooed gadget.
The violent backlash toward Google Glass was as sudden as the enthusiasm it had sparked earlier. Rumors swirled that interest in the project was waning, that the number of apps developed for it was falling and that even Google had ceased to believe in what had been branded as a revolution in the making. One moment studies forecasted sales of 10 million Google Glasses in the next three years and a $10 billion market, and the next there were alarming reports that the glasses might be bad for the eyes.
Even those who embraced the technology early went on to reconsider their positions. Bloggers and tastemakers who used their personal networks and spent $1,500 to obtain the first models began to openly express their disappointment. Robert Scoble, an influential U.S. technology blogger who initially raved about the project, wrote a devastating post a year ago.
"Google Glass is doomed," he wrote. "And that's not necessarily because of the criticism that we regularly direct at it. Google can work on less intrusive, cheaper models. The product has potential. But we'll inevitably end up comparing Google Glass sales to that of the Apple Watch, and given the advancement of both products, Google will lose the PR battle."
There are an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 Google Glasses in circulation in the world today.
The loss of interest seems to be confirmed by Google's announcement about closing its Basecamp stores, the physical retail stores where it sold Google Glass. In London, New York and San Francisco, early adopters could buy the technology and could get assistance from Google experts. The service was eventually considered to be of little use.
This is probably symbolic of a failure if we choose to see these stores as a place to display the product and demonstrate its technological prowess. But it could also reveal the beginning of a new strategy if we consider that those who have been using the glasses are professionals, people with influence or developers who have no need to be taught how it works.
"For me, these closures mean exactly the opposite of what people have been saying," says David-Henri Bismuth, consultant for the French digital agency Niji. "Google's message is, "The testing phase is over, and we're ready for commercial launch.""
Google Glass is still no more than a prototype, even though it has evolved and has had both its software and hardware updated. "When it was released, we quickly saw astounding videos," says Thomas Gayet, head of the innovation lab at SQLI. "We all started to fantasize over the object and its possibilities. We created new ways of using it without even getting our hands on it. And when we finally did, some of us were disappointed."
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Google co-founder Sergey Brin sporting Google Glass in 2013 — Photo: Steve Jurvetson
Google's idea was to use the enthusiasm Google Glass generated to let the community come up with new ways to use it and develop apps, like both Apple and Google have done for their smartphones and tablets.
But strategic questions arose. Is it reasonable to allow such a long testing phase (almost two years) without actually launching the product? Won't privacy concerns doom Google Glass? Didn't Google go too far in its buzz strategy at the risk of disappointing users?
"Before the glasses are even really available to the public, they're already banned from all sorts of places in the U.S. — in cars, in some public spaces, in theaters, for security, privacy or royalty reasons," Gayet says. "This doesn't really inspire confidence."
For developers, the object is a promising one, but it's far from being perfect and they're still looking for a "killer app" that would make it a must-have. Innovative ideas exist, but the fact that it's not available to the larger public means it can't be tested on a full scale.
Because companies have easier access to Google Glass with special offers, software developers have chosen to focus on business-to-business apps. That's how France's state-owned railway company SNCF has created an app that enables inspectors to scan tickets with the glasses, displaying on the screen the journey's details and the documentation the people might need to show. But because of the price tag and the public's fears regarding their privacy, it was never tested live. Still, the company is thinking of other ways to use the technology — for example, to better report malfunctions in carriages or on the railways.
Other industries are also working on all sorts of projects, from banks to doctors. Besides, business-to-business apps fit nicely into Google's global strategy to appeal to companies so as to find growth engines. The Mountain View giant is currently pushing its solutions to small- and medium-sized businesses, and it even goes door-to-door in some cities to raise awareness about the digital revolution.
In France, media distribution company Presstalis invited start-ups and developers to imagine the future of media and how news desks could use new interfaces, from glasses to smart watches. Many of them believe that it would be no big deal if Google Glass never made it to the next stage.
"We have integrated our developments into a more global devices strategy," explains developer Denis Mancosu. "It doesn't matter whether the end object is a watch or glasses or anything else. This experience will have been useful, and the same logic can be applied on other platforms. The most important is to be ready when the market takes off."
With or without Google Glass.