Google Glass: An Explorer's Postmortem

I think we're about at the point that I can comfortably talk about my experience with Google Glass as a whole from a holistic standpoint. Namely because as far as I am concerned, Glass is now dead.

Early Experience

In 2012, I was at Google I/O during the most public unveiling of Glass, and the first opportunity to get on the waitlist to buy one. Sergey Brin parachuted into the Moscone Center streaming video from the device, with a landing that felt like it was taken right out of Iron Man 2. I got GRID brick, number 663, and in May of 2013, I received the first of what ended up being three Shale Glass units.

I was also part of the Glass Foundry event the preceding January. I'll admit, one of the most exciting moments of my tech career was having a New York Times reporter beg me to break the non-disclosure agreement surrounding information we were told at the Foundry. (And there was a significant thrill in refusing to provide information to the New York Times. When newspapers want to know what you know... it's exciting.)

From my first experience with the device, I was absolutely thrilled with the hardware. It's elegant, simple, and blends right in, if you wear prescription frames and a muted color. The screen was perfectly designed; out of your way during daily life and easy to forget was there, but incredibly convenient to glance at when you needed it. Battery life was particularly short, but that is to be expected with a 560 mAh battery.

The first day I got Google Glass, I wore it to a restaurant and received, to my knowledge, the most amazing compliment a woman has ever given me. The girl at the register told me I was "the coolest guy she'd ever met" because I had Glass. I enjoyed the personal attention having one of the rare devices got me. One of my jokes was that "I paid $1,600 to buy popularity for a year." No longer having to seek people to converse with, people regularly approached me to ask about it.

The biggest initial concerns I had with the product was the design that all apps were simply messaging back and forth to the cloud via a Google API protocol (later to be supplemented by a native app option), and the fact that "Instant Upload" or Auto-Backup, was a non-configurable 'feature' of the device. If you took pictures with Glass, Google would upload those pictures next time the device had both power and Wi-Fi. I requested an option to disable this feature at the earliest possible opportunity.

Watching the Hype

As a moderator on the most popular Glass Explorer community on Google+, I had front row seats to the growth of the community and public perception of the Glass program. Invites were initially hotly-traded commodities, and people clamored for the chance to buy into the program. In time, Google granted their wish, first by giving Glass Explorers the chance to invite others to the program, and eventually by opening Glass up for public purchase.

Meanwhile, several people shifted their career focuses specifically to Glass-related products and services. Things like the SoGE (Society of Glass Enthusiasts) groups arose, along with companies making apps, skins, and hardware accessories for Glass. Decorative caps for the Glass earbuds were a particular favorite of mine. However, as someone not generally prone to the startup lifestyle, I questionned those who abandoned their other jobs to work an ecosystem surrounding a product that wasn't even released for consumers, as it seemed like an act of fanaticism. (Notably, some of these people have been hired by Google itself.)

Public Perception Sours

However, as excitement in the Glass community was ramping up, things turned sour for Glass in the public image. A few notable incidents in the San Francisco Bay Area were likely caused in part by the anti-tech movement that has arisen there. While Glass is far from a covert recording device, many people expressed believe that without a more overt recording indicator, Glass users were assumed to be violating their privacy. (Personally, I rarely if ever experienced negative perceptions while wearing Glass, most people I encountered were intrigued and curious about them.)

Furthermore, both businesses and the government turned against them. While I found the ability to subtly check notifications without disrupting moviegoers to be a primary perk of the device, movie theaters began to publicly announce bans on Glass for fear that people would use them to bootleg movies (despite obvious head-bobbing issues). The ability to navigate, text, and call hands-free on Glass is far superior to any hands-free system sold in any car today. However, states began to propose laws banning their use while driving, despite again, that being a key use case for the device.

While surely not more than a minor footnote, an affair between Sergey Brin and a Glass employee made a fair bit of a fuss when it went public, and shortly after even Sergey, our real-life Tony Stark, stopped wearing the device.

Glass Development Stalls

Another huge hit seemed to be the apparently slowing and eventual cessation of updates to Google Glass. While initially updated monthly, Glass eventually stopped receiving frequent updates. In particular the baseline upgrade to KitKat held back feature updates for months. One of the most publicly-marketed features, the ability to stream video live over Hangouts, was actually removed from the device, which was not a decision that was received well.

Very few Google apps were updated with more than the most basic functionality, even after a significant period of time. Settings were non-existant. For example, you could only receive emails Google decided were "important" and there was no way to change that behavior.

My longstanding privacy concern with Instant Upload was never addressed. For a while, it was arguable that Glass simply didn't have the depth of settings necessary to allow it, however Glass eventually introduced a settings bundle to configure auto-backup settings, allowing you to choose to allow sync regardless of power and network state, or to wait for wall power and Wi-Fi. However, Google refused to include an option to shut that synchronization feature off, showing disregard for users' ownership over their own photos.

In part due to the lack of consumer release, third party apps never left the range of around fifty apps, and the slow, Apple-esque app approval process meant many of the most useful apps never made it to the app list. Eventually, some companies dropped support for their Glass apps entirely. While the Android build on Glass was open source, and the bootloader was unlocked, the decision to keep the entire UI of the device in a closed source package killed the chance of any significant ROM development in it's cradle.

For many basic functions, no app was ever available. For instance, Glass never had an email client that could work with non-Gmail addresses. Without even this level of baseline capability, it was hard to justify wearing the device day in and day out, other than the attention it sometimes got me.

The End, Effectively

On a recent earnings call, Google confirmed that they asked the Glass team to step back and refocus. This was coupled with the closure of the Explorer Edition and the end of public sales. While Google still provides the devices for 'Glass for Work' customers, the consumer side of Glass has come to a close.

The official rhetoric is that they are working on what's next, I believe the end of Glass has been reached. Many of the known employees of Glass have now moved on, either by leaving the company or moving to other products at Google. I know of a few employees on the original Glass team which haven't, at least publicly, changed their status, but without so many of their developers, I question even the viability of the project continuing.

My Glass is now shelved, and I anticipate a matter of time for Google doing the same with the program.