The beta for Google Glass really isn’t going well. Last week, it was reported the product has been hacked and that unknown strangers could get access to your camera and microphone. Most of us don’t think our private moments showing up on YouTube or being watched by some twisted stranger in a darkened room is a great idea. With Saturday Night Live making fun of the product, Google Glass is reminding me a great deal of the Apple Newton, another amazing product that launched before its time and failed spectacularly.
Let’s revisit the Apple Newton and compare it to Google Glass.
The Apple Newton was the first Personal Digital Assistant, or PDA. Unfortunately, the first device in a segment often defines it but doesn’t own the result. I doubt many remember any MP3 player before the iPod, for instance. But the Newton came from Apple, and that meant it came with a lot of marketing and that marketing resulted in lots of interest. Its key feature, rather than calendaring and contact management (the core features of a PDA) was handwriting recognition, and it was particularly bad at this. You see, the problem wasn’t that the device sucked at doing things that folks wanted to do; it sucked at doing the one thing that Apple was focused on marketing -- handwriting recognition -- and it became a running joke in comic strips and on Saturday Night Live, which was a bit more popular back then.
The Newton was one of the products Steve Jobs killed when he returned to Apple, partially because it was the key product that John Sculley had launched and Jobs, because Sculley was the guy who had fired him and Jobs wanted all memories of Sculley purged from the company’s product lines. The Newton wasn’t doing very well, though you could argue that it was within one release of being a success.
The Palm Pilot, which had parts of the old Newton team driving it to market for 3Com, was that next generation Newton and it gave up handwriting recognition for a gesture language called Script. It was far cheaper and was marketed with the features of scheduling and contact management, and utilities like a calculator which made it a market favorite and kind of made Jobs look stupid for killing the Newton prematurely. Jobs got even by dropping these same features into the iPod Touch and then topping that product with the iPhone, which was instrumental in putting Palm out of business. In the end, Apple ended up with leadership in the market they started with the Newton; granted that leadership is being successfully challenged by Google today, but that is another story.
Google is a company made up of and staffed by engineers, and they don’t seem to understand people very well. We need to see a new device, particularly an expensive device, as something that will improve our social status and we tend not to buy things that make us look stupid. Google clearly doesn’t understand this at all, and Google Glass is the perfect example of this problem.
Google Glass is in beta; this is process Apple generally avoids like the plague because it wanted to control the perceptions surrounding its products and know that a bad first impression is very hard to overcome. Google, even though the founders were mentored by Steve Jobs personally, must have slept through this lesson.
For something you wear on your head, a core “feature” of the product has to be that it improves your status. If you buy expensive eye wear, an expensive hat or even an expensive Bluetooth earpiece, it has to at least be neutral, but should ideally enhance how people perceive you. A very expensive piece of wearable hardware that makes you look stupid should be unacceptable and, unfortunately, that is where Google Glass stands out. This product does make you look geeky and not in a smart or attractive way.
Google has already acquired a reputation for delivering products that are very unsecure, and it doesn’t help that Google Glass has already been hacked. While Google had a similar problem with Android, most folks keep their phones in places where the camera can’t see much (purses, pockets, pouches, etc.) and the phones can’t hear that well either unless they are out. Google Glass on your head making everything you see potentially entertainment for folks you don’t know and don’t want to see what you are seeing.
Finally, Google Glass has very limited battery life, lasting a fraction of a day, which, given the problem above, might actually be considered a safety feature because, if the device is dead, folks can’t watch you through it.
Wrapping Up: Google Glass the new Newton
The Newton had one critical problem; it couldn’t do handwriting recognition, and that was the core feature Apple marketed. Palm showcased that the fix was not to market something the device couldn’t do. Google Glass is a mess; it needs to be redesigned so it doesn’t make buyers look like idiots; it needs to be secured so it doesn’t broadcast your private moments; and it needs performance consistent with its overall mission. The Newton hit an easy-to-overcome speed bump and failed; Google Glass is a mess of mistakes and problems. I do think the core idea has promise, but if Google Glass continues to be an industry joke, it will be years before anyone has the guts to try something like this again.
President and Principal Analyst, Enderle Group
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