Even the Guy Who Designed the iPod May Not Be Able to Save Google Glass


Ariel Zambelich/WIRED

Google Glass hasn’t changed the world. Not even close. Briefly hailed as the wearable heir to the smartphone, Glass has mainly become an object of derision, confusion, and indifference. Google never really succeeded in making a convincing case for why we’d all want to wear our phones on our faces.

The iPod, on the other hand, was a device that radically changed the trajectory of personal tech. The conceptual parent of the iPhone, the iPod upended the recording industry, revitalized Apple, and ushered in the online, on-demand era of music, movies, books, and TV. And the guy who designed the iPod? He now works for Google.

Tony Fadell joined the company when Google paid more than $3 billion for Nest, the smart-home startup he co-founded. At the time of the acquisition almost exactly one year ago, we made much of how Nest’s connected thermostats and smoke alarms would give Google entree to the oceans of data these smart devices will generate as they become commonplace in people’s homes. But buying Nest also brought Google something else: a guy with a proven record of designing hardware that is radically new but also widely embraced by consumers.

Nest CEO Tony Fadell.

Nest CEO Tony Fadell. Nest

In that light, Google’s decision today to give Fadell oversight of Google Glass makes a lot of sense. If any gadget needs a guiding hand to transform it from geek fetish to viable product, it’s Glass. But the challenge is steep, even for Fadell. The problem is that Glass’ failure doesn’t ultimately stem from people perceiving it as uncool; it’s that Glass isn’t perceived as all that useful. Google had hoped Glass’ early users would help find the functions for its form; now Fadell will have to push reset on that unsuccessful effort. Instead of asking users what Glass is for, Fadell must find a way to tell them.

No Clear Advantage

From the time of its first limited release in 2013, critics have railed against Glass as a privacy invader and a anti-social intrusion on everyday face-to-face contact. But the outrage drew attention away from the more mundane question of what the real point was of having access to the basic functions of your smartphone through a tiny display permanently hovering just above your eye. To make sense as a general purpose consumer device, a gadget needs to have a clear advantage over those that preceded it. Glass’ advantage compared to pulling out your phone was never clear, and Google never effectively articulated it. Instead, Google seemed to hope that by offering Glass to a select number of early adopters and techies through its Glass Explorer program, which is now ending, the device’s first users would do the work of figuring out what it was for.

That didn’t happen, at least not in a way that made those advantages obvious to the general public. Over the past two years, we’ve learned that consumers are not clamoring for heads-up displays; what they really want are the same old smartphones, except with ginormous screens. As innovative as Glass may seem in its newness, newness alone does not entail innovation if the equation does not also include usefulness.

Glass came into the world as a gadget looking for a reason to be, and that reason hasn’t been found.

A caveat: connected headsets like Glass are here to stay in specific, mostly work-related contexts. Certain specialized occupations such as surgeon, construction worker, or jet-engine mechanic will benefit greatly from access to a constant stream of information that the person on the receiving end can consume while keeping both hands free. The future of wearable devices isn’t about a single device that does everything. It’s about lots of different devices that each do one thing really well.

And in a future like that, what place does Glass really have? That’s what Tony Fadell will have to figure out. Perhaps resetting Glass means re-presenting it to consumers as a device for work. And since consumers rather than IT departments are now driving the tech that gets used in the workplace, a reimagining of Glass for enterprise could still offer a path to mass adoption.

To be sure, Google is still signaling mainstream ambitions for its beleaguered eyewear. Along with putting the device in Fadell’s hands, Google is also pushing Glass out of the experimental nest of its Google X division (Glass is “graduating,” Google says). But if Glass is really out of its infancy, as Google asserts, it’s hardly all grown up. Giving the device to Fadell is a gamble that, with his user-experience chops, he will be able to define, implement, and convey a sense of purpose through which potential consumers will finally “get” Glass. But that still leaves the question: Who is that potential consumer?

Clarity of Vision

In a recent podcast post-mortem on the Consumer Electronics Show, Andreessen Horowitz partner Benedict Evans described the Internet of Things as a kind of inversion of the typical path for new tech. Instead of a great need that innovators strive to develop new tech in order to meet, the Internet of Things consists of a wealth of devices waiting for consumers to figure out what they’re good for. Evans said that, in that context, the real value of Nest to both consumers and Google isn’t so much in its thermostat or its smoke detector as gadgets unto themselves. Instead, the value of Nest is in the company’s jumpstart on creating a user-friendly system that conveys not just the usefulness of each device individually, but that through its design communicates how that usefulness evolves as more devices connect to the system.

“The point of of Nest isn’t the thermostat,” Evans said. “It’s the route to market and the communication.”

To succeed, Fadell needs to imbue Glass with a similar clarity of vision. And if anyone seems capable of making the case for Glass, it’s the guy who managed to persuade consumers that devices as boring as the thermostat and the smoke detector could be transformed into much more useful appliances. Unlike Glass, however, the thermostat and smoke detector both have obvious, well-defined purposes that tech augments by connecting them to each other and the internet.

Glass came into the world as a gadget looking for a reason to be, and that reason hasn’t been found. Someone with Fadell’s gift might be able to find it. But he’ll have to look pretty hard. Relaunching Glass as primarily a tool for work seems like the most fruitful path to take, to find highly specific niches where Glass makes sense. But the likelihood that even Fadell can convince the world of the need for a face-mounted smartphone is slim. It’s not like Google to think small. But Fadell will have to narrow Glass’ view if he wants it to survive.

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