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Why Google Glass is fascinating; Chromebook Pixel just puzzling

Google co-rounder Sergey Brwears Google Glass glasses an announcement for Breakthrough Prize Life Sciences Genentech Hall UCSF’s MissiBay campus San

Google co-rounder Sergey Brin wears Google Glass glasses at an announcement for the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences at Genentech Hall on UCSF’s Mission Bay campus in San Francisco, Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

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Updated: April 4, 2013 6:05AM



“The tech industry’s most fascinating company” is a title that changes hands frequently over the course of a year. This week, I’m handing it to Google.

But not before I offer some hasty notes about the word “fascinating.” First, yes, I’m well-aware that the word is an absolute, and that as such, “most fascinating” is grammatically-incorrect. Secondly, you should understand that something can be “fascinating” for any number of reasons.

I once visited the public exhibition space for The Long Now Foundation, located at the Fort Mason Center in San Francisco. There I saw a hypnotically-complex clock chime mechanism. It’s a wholly-mechanical computer the size of a coffin that will create and ring a unique melody each and every day for 10,000 years.

In the same city, I once saw an otherwise clean and tidy man in Golden Gate Park rubbing peanut butter up and down his arms and shouting “This is a doorway!”

(Aside: if you behave like that in public and you do not have a small bowl in front of your for donations, you are a loony. If you have the bowl, however, or at least some grant money, you are merely an artist.)

Each of these displays was fascinating. They made me stop, and look, and think, and try to understand the minds behind the work. Offhand, I think I’d rather take credit for the chime mechanism than...whhhhhatever it was I was seeing in the park. But it’s clear that both displays required confidence and commitment. They were the products of a peculiar mindset and a clear vision of the present and the future. They were created in pursuit of a specific goal. But what? Hence my fascination.

http://www.theverge.com/2013/2/22/4013406/i-used-google-glass-its-the-future-with-monthly-updates

http://www.google.com/glass/start/how-it-feels/

Last week, via a newly posted video on the Google Glass site and an exclusive hands-on demo granted to Josh Topolsky (editor-in-chief of The Verge and new holder of the Most Intensely-Envied Man In Tech Journalism crown), the company offered the first substantive peek at Google Glass in actual operation. A simple scroll up/scroll down/OK mechanical input is built in to the device and offers a silent way of navigating a linear menu. It’s not as sexy as speaking your commands -- which is Glass’ primary user input -- but the mechanical interface will allow Glass to be operated silently.

Glass projects a clean, small, Google Now-style card into the upper-right corner of your field of vision. All Glass and Google services are visually de-cluttered for this minimalist-style presentation. Glass is designed to just enhance your ongoing real-world experiences rather than interfering with them; nothing blocks your primary vision.

What can Glass actually do? The Glass menu, as shown in the first-person-perspective video, includes “Google” (search), “Take a picture,” “Record a video” (a 10-second clip, according to Josh), “Hang out with” (which starts a Google+ Hangout), and “Get directions to” (navigation).

Voice is your go-to interface. Say “Ok Glass...Hang out with…” and a new menu pops up with your list of G+ contacts. While you’re in the Hangout, video of the person or the people you’re hanging out with appears in the display. You’re handling a yellow python, your son back home at the other end of the G+ Hangout is watching you handle the snake, and in the corner of your eye you can also watch your son’s reaction to the rather awesome live video you’re sending.

Whenever I take a professional look at a new whatsit, I’m trying to find the answer to a simple question: why does this thing even need to exist? If the whatsit is a new phone, why did there need to be yet another smartphone with a 4.5” multitouch display? If it’s something unprecedented, like Glass, I wonder what problem it solves.

The video -- which Josh says mirrors his own experience with Glass, though minus the skydiving and the snake-handling, I suspect -- makes the case that a computer that ties up neither your hands nor your eyeballs is something rather special. Smartwatches got a lot of ink recently, but as a concept a screen on your wrist isn’t any different from a screen in your pocket. It’s just smaller, and less likely to get scratched by your car keys. Glass can tell you that that you’re supposed to turn right onto Park Row in 1.55 miles without making you take your eyes off the road. It can tell you that the flight you’re desperately running through the airport to catch is leaving from gate A12 in 14 minutes, and that the message that just arrived on your phone isn’t even important enough that you should break your stride during a morning constitutional. It also lets you share a moment with friends or loved ones without depriving you of the ability to actually experiencing the moment yourself.

(Indeed, the idea of a wearable first-person-perspective camera is attractive in and of itself. The camera roll on my phone tells a story about me and my life that my “real” cameras never captured. The phone is always in my pocket and taking a picture is absolutely no big deal. I take pictures even just as a backup for my short-term memory, particularly when I travel, and those shots often provoke a huge rush of memory when I scroll back into them years later. Glass is a camera that is work throughout the day and taking a photo requires me to just keep looking at the thing I was looking at anyway, while saying “OK, Glass...take a picture.”)

(But please, let me be among the very first to propose a new amendment to the Social Contract Of Humanity: if someone asks you to take off your Google Glasses, you are required to comply immediately and not be a jerk about it.)

Of course, this is exactly the story that Google’s promotional video was intended to tell. I myself have not been blessed with firsthand contact with Glass...though I’m determined to keep pestering Google about it until they respond with either a device, an invitation to drop by their Cambridge office for a walking demo...or a restraining order.

But the video, and Topolsky’s report in The Verge, add a long-desired piece of the picture. Will I be able to afford to buy Glass when it becomes a consumer product before the end of this year? Will I want all of the attention I’ll get wearing this device on my face all day? What’s the battery life like? What does Glass do to the battery life or the mobile data cap of the phone I’ve paired it with? All unknown.

Would I want one? Would I use it after the novelty wore off? Definite maybe. I now see Glass as something akin to the phone that’s docked to the left of my steering wheel every time I drive. It’s damned useful, even though it’s just a little cardlike screen off in my peripheral vision. I don’t need to pick it up and I don’t need to give it more than a sliver of my attention, and its apps are designed to convey only the necessary molecule of information I want at a specific given moment. I’m not using my phone. I’m driving, and the phone is being helpful while my hands are on the wheel and my eyes are elsewhere. Glass, if it works well, could help me do more with the things I’m seeing and thinking and experiencing, without becoming the thing I’m looking at and thinking about and dealing with. That’s a failure point for any phone.

If Glass works well, mind you. Google still has lots of work ahead.

This month, they’re holding some closed-door summits with a short list of developers in a couple of cities. Normally, the point of this kind of an event would be to make sure that there’s a credible library of apps available on launch day. Instead (in Josh’s estimation) Google is getting value from putting Glass on fresh sets of eyes and learning how these outsiders use, interact with, and exploit the device. It’s still a device in progress.

This was a good week for the Glass project. I still don’t know that Google has a viable product on their hands. But it’s certainly no longer a pie-in-the-sky concept. The mockery that Glass received from some commentators during its first announcement in April of last year might have been understandable...but now it seems embarrassingly premature.

Google had something else to talk about last week, though. I can’t remember a product that’s baffled me harder or more roughly than Google’s new Chromebook Pixel.

As notebooks go, the Pixel has some swell specs. The 12.85” screen has a superb 239 ppi pixel density. It has an Intel i5 CPU, a backlit keyboard, a big, comfy glass trackpad, it’s clad in a beautiful metal case, and it’s fairly thin and light. Built-in 4G LTE is available as an option.

Great.

“$1,299.”

(Less great.)

“Battery life is five hours.”

(Umm…)

“32 gigabytes of storage.”

(Are you sure?)

And: it is indeed a Chromebook. So it runs webapps, not desktop apps. It’s not like a Chromebook is completely useless without an internet connection (the Pixel has a lot of storage for a Chromebook, and webapps written for ChromeOS or even just plain HTML5 can be written to run without an Internet connection) but that’s not the way a Chromebook was meant to run.

Um...whiskey tango foxtrot?

I love Chromebooks. I gave the latest generation Samsung Chromebook a great review a few months ago. I like them so much that just this past weekend, I found myself recommending one to a family member instead of an iPad. He needed something that worked like a notebook PC, but cheap, light, and maintenance free. That’s the perfect math for a Chromebook.

I think Google’s doing something culturally-important with this product: they’re delivering a premium computing experience at a budget price point. A great $250 notebook is possible because Chromebooks are designed from the ground up to run great on cheap, mobile processors and with a minimum of onboard storage.

There’s a reason why the new Samsung Chromebook the #1 selling laptop on Amazon.com. Is it as good as a $1500 MacBook or Lenovo? Hell, no. But are those notebooks six times more useful than the Chromebook? Hell, no. And there are countless buyers (schools, low-income households, individuals who want a lightweight second notebook for portability) for whom the difference in price between a $250 Chromebook and even a mid-priced laptop is the difference between Having and Having To Do Without. So I say “bravo” to the Chromebook, and to the market for which it stands.

But a $1,300 Chromebook just doesn’t add up. You can take your pick from a dozen exceptional Windows and Mac notebooks in that price range. None of them have a screen as crisp as the Pixel (even the $1499 13” MacBook Pro is just slightly behind) but all of them have much more storage and more ports. Most of them have longer battery life. And all of them run desktop apps.

I talked to Google about the Pixel on launch day, asking some of the dumbest and most basic questions I’ve ever dared ask, but I’m still profoundly confused. Today, the Pixel seems to be serving a customer who doesn’t exist. Even a power Chromebook user, I reckon, would be more likely to buy a $1300 Windows notebook and simply run webapps in the Chrome browser, right?

Which only leaves...The Future?

Maybe Google hopes that the Pixel will inspire web developers to push the envelope for server-side apps.

Maybe this is just the first in a line of Google laptops with the Pixel name. The Chromebook Pixel’s multitouch screen makes very little sense for webapps. But Google does indeed have a conventional OS that uses multitouch very well. Is the Pixel notebook just Google’s first swing at building their own laptop? Is Google setting the stage for more laptops in the near future? Maybe models that make more sense, are more affordable, don’t suffer from the jinx of being a company’s first house-developed product...and maybe runs Android 5.0?

And when we speak of “the near future,” we’re muchly thinking “this coming holiday season.” Google’s building up a whole product line. Like Apple, they have a tablet (the Nexus 7), a phone (the Nexus 4), and now, a notebook. They also have this Google Glass thingy. And it’s only February.

Add it all up, and these rumors of Google opening some Apple-style “Google Stores” certainly make sense. Microsoft Stores made sense, too. Conventional electronics stores have become increasingly flaky over the past ten years. The salespeople are paid next to nothing, they receive training that’s worse than nothing, and customer service is very much based on the dominatrix/submissive concept. A tech company that wants to build loyalty for their brand and also wants to ensure that their products are presented to their greatest advantage by knowledgeable staff needs to open their own stores in key markets.

As I say: Google’s a fascinating company at this point in time. If there’s anything at all frustrating about Google right now, it’s the fact that their most interesting and innovative ideas (Glass and Chromebooks) don’t seem to have a great sense of urgency behind them. When Apple ships a phone, they make the case that this isn’t merely the most important product the company has ever made...it’s also the most important product the world will ever know.

What will it cost Google, if Glass doesn’t ship until 2014? Will Google lose face if the Pixel flops?

The answers to those questions lie in the story of the Nexus Q, the epically-bizarre audio streaming orb that Google announced during their developer conference last summer and which was quickly canceled on account of hilarity. A high-profile flop like the Q could have ended a struggling company and it would have been a defining embarrassment for Microsoft or even Apple. Google, however, was able to just shrug and move on, and the device has been largely forgotten.

The defining characteristic of an A-list tech company is its ability to develop and pursue their own vision of the future, regardless of what today’s consumers think they want. Apple has that ability so long as they keep designing hardware that people love. Microsoft has it, so long as the rest of the industry continues to fail to produce an alternative to Windows or Office that makes sense to the majority of businesses and consumers.

Google’s ability to pursue its own destiny is fueled by their search product. Google Search makes Glass, Android, and Chrome better, but its fortunes aren’t tied to these other products the same way that Apple and Microsoft’s cash cows are affected by the rest of their product lines. This gives Google the freedom to produce something as exciting, as risky, and as unproven as Glass.



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