Bringing Glass To A Tablet Fight

By treating its tablet as an afterthought, and turning the spotlight on its nascent glasses tech, Google has set itself up well for success in both arenas.

In the days leading up to Google’s fourth annual developer’s conference on June 27, tech bloggers speculated, correctly in many cases, about the release of a Google-branded Android tablet, the Nexus 7.

The speculators, myself included, didn’t talk much about the possibility that Google would deliberately sideline its own much-hyped tablet to promote a more experimental product, Google Glass, basically a smartphone’s guts jammed into glasses frames, with a tiny video and still camera attached. Nor was there any expectation that Google would actually commit to shipping Google Glass, albeit vaguely, in “early 2013.”

But in so doing, Google delivered a masterstroke of tech marketing as well as candor about its vision for the future. Instead of talking about tablets, I am, and many others, are talking about a whole new product category that Google seeks to invent. Whether Google Glass succeeds in catching on with the masses in any meaningful way remains to be seen, but I believe it will, and partially because of the way Google has gone about unveiling it so far.

To be clear, the intense focus on a Google tablet ahead of the I/O conference in San Francisco was warranted. It was a good time to talk tablets, coming in the wake of Microsoft’s unveiling of its own device, the Surface, just a few days earlier.

It’s difficult to look at Microsoft’s high-style, substance-light unveiling of the Surface — which still lacks a firm release date, price, availability, battery life and network connectivity details — as anything but a panic move on Microsoft’s part, a reaction not just to the iPad but to Google’s impending tablet launch. 

Even if that was the case, Microsoft certainly could have done worse. The Surface remains a compelling and intriguing new device, perhaps thanks to the lack of concrete information. In the days following its June 17 Surface unveiling, Microsoft received a flood of coverage about its tablet, Windows 8 and the company as a whole — much of it positive, or at least optimistic. The event certainly caused many people to look at the company in a fresh light. 

The same cannot be said of Google with its Nexus 7 tablet, despite the fact that it is available right now, for the (subsidized) low, low price of $199. The Nexus 7 alone doesn’t really change any perceptions of Google. It’s just another Google storefront.

Arguably, if this were still just a tablet battle, Google’s tablet is all anyone should be talking about. The Nexus 7 is a tangible, obtainable tablet, and seems to present American consumers with a “third party” option in the recognizable tablet race, which was previously a dual, if an imbalanced one, between the iPad and the Kindle Fire. 

There’s also little question that Amazon has the most to lose from Google’s decision to release a tablet very similar in size and style, and identical in price, to its Kindle Fire. Both tablets emphasize their respective makers’ online content stores, Google Play and well, Amazon.com. In terms of pure specs, functionality and arguably aesthetics, the Nexus 7 already has the Kindle Fire beat, and initial reviews have been kind to the device. But the Kindle Fire is going on 9 months old, and Amazon is reportedly preparing to launch two new versions soon. 

Google’s industry knowledge surely must have alerted the company to this fact, so why release a tablet so similar in many cases to what’s already out there?

It’s also unclear how widely available the Google Nexus 7 will end up being in retailers (so far just GameStop, but my guess is its physical retailer presence will probably soon be equal to that of the Kindle Fire, which can be found in Radio Shack and Best Buy) and whether Google’s own brand, as well as that of its "Nexus" devices, is strong and resonant enough to cross the divide from what Google is to most people — a collection of Web-based services, not even really a software company, much less a hardware one. 

Google doesn’t really seem to care about those questions though, nor its overall tablet strategy, at least not as much as Glass. And that’s kind of strange, considering all the nice things that have been written and said about the Nexus 7 so far. 

"If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation," Don Draper tells the developers of a then controversial Madison Square Garden in one episode of Mad Men

Aside from the Nexus 7, the company released, and gave away to developers, a number of other new devices, including its Nexus Q home music and video streaming player, and its Chromebox desktop computer, and a Galaxy Nexus phone running the latest version of Android. The Nexus Q is itself essentially a tablet’s guts jammed into an opaque sphere without any screen, or independent interface whatsoever for that matter. 

By unveiling (and giving away) the equivalent of two functional tablets, Google slyly but effectively conveyed a message: Tablets technology is no big deal to us. We can do it with our eyes closed. Here, here’s a tablet that doesn’t look like a tablet, just for the hell of it.

And yet, what’s sort of remarkable is that Google was able put two tablet devices that are as good, if not better than the market’s silver medalist (the Kindle Fire), but the company didn’t spend nearly as much time talking about either of those as another device, Glass, which was unveiled at the close of I/O day one in what tech blogger Robert Scoble has called “the mother of all demos,” an insanely elaborate series of choreographed stunts — skydivers, BMX bikers, rappelers, all who broadcast their action to the I/O crowd on a giant screen from their point-of-view glasses.

Testing the audience’s goodwill, Google co-founder and Glass maestro Sergey Brin ran through the stunt demo twice, two days in a row, and several other researchers working on the Glass project spent more time discussing their initial tests and goals. 

All of that could have just been an ostentatious display of Google’s entire corporate ideology of tinkering, dreaming big and eschewing the paradigm. In many ways, it was still that, mostly.

But Google did something insanely clever, too — surprisingly announcing a release date and a price for the first versions of Glass, called “Explorer Edition,” which will ship in “early 2013” for $1,500 per pair. Google instantly transformed what had until that point been a fantasy device into reality.

Yes, $1,500 is a lot for a device that is, from what Google showed about its capabilities, so far just a glorified POV webcam. Yes, the first versions of Glass are restricted to a relatively small (5,500 attendees) pool of software developers, who don’t accurately represent the typical American, or even global, demographics or consumer mindset, though those are becoming more similar, steadily. Yes, Google’s own high-style, substance-light, downright theatrical demo of Glass was not how any potential consumers, let alone developers, are likely to ever use the specs. And there is something to be said for the critiques — leveled by several notable tech bloggers following the demo — that Google’s whole handling of the situation, perhaps even its core belief that ordinary people will want to go around with a computer strapped to their faces, reflects the eccentricities of its founders and its culture, and to some degree, its detachment with reality. 

But reality is a tricky thing when it comes to consumer tech. (Especially augmented reality.)

In recent days, to coincide with the fifth year anniversary of Apple’s iPhone, a video of Steve Balmer’s reaction to the device has been making the rounds.

Balmer, not known for being an especially contemplative, nor reserved, guy, is asked by a reporter what he thinks of the iPhone, which as at the time anything but a sure bet. He laughs at it. He thinks the $500 price tag is too much. He proceeds to demean the device and explain why Windows Phone is a much better bet for the market and for consumers.

Recent history has of course proven Balmer strikingly wrong. The iPhone is on top of the smartphone world, the single-best selling and most coveted model of all time, so far, and Microsoft has spent the last few years pulling its mobile act together and is now prepared to bet its consumer future on an operating system (Windows 8) that pretty much severs all ties to its predecessors, the very programs that made Microsoft a household name and the tech behemoth that it is today. 

Of course, hindsight is twenty twenty, especially through AR-tinted glasses. But with Google communicating to the world that Glass is something special, and with Glass designers themselves proselytizing that the technology will be revolutionary and a hit, while at the same time treating its tablet and other hardware offerings with less reverence, Google is showing the world that it can balance its present business needs with its future ambitions. 

A Glass researcher, Steve Lee, told Wired’s Steven Levy in a recent interview: “It’s my expectation that in three to five years it will actually look unusual and awkward when we view someone holding an object in their hand and looking down at it. Wearable computing will become the norm.”

Five or six years ago, it would have been weird to see someone looking down at the touchscreen smartphone in their hands all the time. Now, thanks to Apple, that’s become the norm. Google and Apple are very different companies, but when it comes to thinking big about the consumer tech of tomorrow, both seem to have their eyes on the ball and their hearts in the right place.

Now, if Glass is as successful as the iPhone or the iPad, there will be a whole new set of privacy concerns that the company will have to deal with, and for that people should be rightfully skeptical. But the potential for Glass is come and steal the show from every other device in people’s lives is ripe, and, based on Google’s insistence, very real. I, for one, look forward to it.