OK, Glass: Show me what's next for Google

Google Glass is expected to reach store shelves sometime in 2014. When it does, the connected headset could do more than change the wearables market: it could change Google, too.

The anticipated 2014 public availability of Google Glass has the potential to change not just the world of Internet-connected wearables, but Google itself. James Martin/CNET

December 2014 is a year away. Barring unforeseen complications, Google Glass will have gone public by then and just might have forever altered its maker in the process.

The story of how Glass could change Google begins back on June 27, 2012. Sergey Brin and his cohorts, in what we now know is Google's X division, pulled off the preposterous, dangerous, and wildly successful extreme sports debut of Glass at the end of its annual developer conference keynote.

It wasn't the first time that Glass had been seen in public, but it suddenly shot the Internet-enabled headset into public consciousness. After Google teased the public with Glass' skydiving debut, the company then proceeded with a caution that extends to this day.

The headset didn't ship until almost a year after making a splash at Google I/O. If you shelled out the $1,500 for the Explorer Edition of the headset, you had to visit Google in person to pick it up. Google has never said why it's taking such a cautious approach, but you could argue that the Glass team knew it had something unusual and controversial on its hands -- and knew Glass needed to handled with kid gloves to make it work.

Slow and steady Glass development Fast forward to today, Google Glass has progressed at a slow and steady pace. Gone are the days of tossing a smartphone like the G1 into the world and praying to the gods of free-market capitalism that it will succeed or die a Randian death. Google has matured as a company, as evidenced by its measured approach to Glass.

There are several thousand Google Glass testers, mostly in the United States, who are wearing, testing, and writing apps for the Android-powered headset. Glass receives a monthly firmware update that adds small but important features such as voice command support for navigation and music. Rarely are there big, world-shattering updates.

Last month saw the debut of the Glass Development Kit preview , finally giving Explorer Edition owners access to most of the hardware APIs (application programming interfaces) so that they could build more interactive apps. Even in its preview form, the GDK was a major piece that allowed developers to build Glassware apps closer to the quality of apps we've become accustomed to on our smartphones.

We also know that Google is inviting more people to purchase Glass , distributing a slightly-updated Explorer Edition headset to current Glass owners for free, and building some accessories such as eye shields and mono earbuds .

Google representatives have acknowledged that Glass' battery life needs work, probably the most common complaint about Glass. The only thing that looks more ridiculous than an Internet-enabled headset is one tethered to a battery pack.

Google Glass has already been banned by some establishments. Lost Lake Cafe/ Facebook

But given Google's recent successes with Android, polishing the mobile operating system and the devices that it powers, Google has proven that it can put together compelling hardware powered by a modern version of Android that doesn't make you want to rip your hair -- or Larry Page's -- out by the roots.

Convincing the public Getting all the development factors lined up is, in some ways, easier than what must follow: selling Glass to a curious but skeptical public. Already banned in some places , and its wearers tagged with the subtly derogatory "Glassholes," a downside to Google debuting Glass in such a public manner is that people have had a lot of time to criticize the concept.

It's likely a time frame for Glass' public release could be revealed at next spring's Google developer conference, Google I/O. Google might even have the Explorer Edition follow-up headsets as their giveaway.

Google has seen success in giving away new, high-profile hardware at Google I/O, as developers crow and help build interest in the new hardware, a paradigm that fits Glass perfectly. A late summer or early fall release wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility as an I/O announcement.

Mark Shandy, a Google Glass engineer with a long history in tech that stretches back to Xerox PARC, shows off a prototype Google Glass fitted for prescription glasses. Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

That would also fit in line with comments that Google has made about wanting to get Glass's price down below $600. The components apparently cost around $210. A new high-end smartphone without a contract runs around $600, if Google can hit a price tag under $300 it would make Glass significantly more appealing.

Another aspect of Glass that challenges Google's comfort zone is convincing the public that Glass isn't just for dweebs. The touchscreen smartphone, now ubiquitous, had a lengthy legacy that spanned two decades. Wearable Internet-connected headsets still haven't crossed over from science fiction to consumer reality.

Looming even larger are the ongoing privacy concerns. Just because Google has banned the development of Glassware that uses facial recognition doesn't mean that they won't be out there. There are even legitimate use-cases for facial recognition . It's one thing when you can tell that somebody is recording you or taking your photo because they're holding up their phone in front of their face, but what happens when the camera is the size of a sugar cube and at eye level?

The struggling "Google Barge" is one indication of Google's intentions. Google has said that the barges will be a showcase for new technologies. It would be hard to imagine a Google-sponsored floating new tech showcase without its cutting edge wearable headset. We also know that Google has been in talks with eye care insurers and prescription lens vendors .

It makes sense that Google would want to pursue several creative ways of making Glass available, such as the optometrist's office and "future-tech" storefronts. Simply making them available at Best Buy alongside the latest Samsung Galaxy device would interfere with Google's ability to control the Glass message. Message control and user education will be the keystones to Glass's success, especially since they've already been the subject of much derision and scrutiny.

As Google looks into Glass, Glass also looks into Google Google Glass isn't the first wearable Internet-connected headset in the world, and it may not even be the best. But it's fueled by an operating system that already has at least hundreds of thousands of developers, and it's backed by the company behind the world's most popular search engine and one of the most-used Web browsers.

Google is helping some developers create real-world uses for Glass. James Martin/CNET

That puts it on significantly more stable footing than most in the burgeoning wearables field, in terms of both financial and developmental support. But Google's not exactly known for making hardware, its recently acquired Motorola division notwithstanding. It's an ad company that trades services for data and ad sales.

And that raises the biggest question when it comes to Glass: how long will Google be able to avoid the clarion call of its lifeblood?

Google won't want to spoil the pot, so ads in the first iteration of Google Glass are doubtful. But what about further down the line, in the second or third model? And if it does introduce ads, will people revolt? It sounds unlikely, but remember that you can still find people wistfully talking about the good ol' days of the Web before ads without too much difficulty.

Trying to predict what Google will do is not unlike trying to prognosticate the path of a voraciously hungry, hyper-intelligent gorilla. But if Google succeeds with Glass, and we'll have a much better idea of whether it will 12 months from now, it'll be because the company has been able to build a compelling device never seen before and convince people that they need it.

Google has stumbled, sometimes badly, in product and in messaging. If they can pull off a successful Glass, those days where larger margins of error were acceptable might become about as common as a Web site without an ad.

 

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