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High price, privacy issues, poor public image doomed the device, although it could be revamped eventually and make a combeback

Google Inc.'s (GOOG) elite research division -- Google [X] -- saw a rare chink in its formidable armor exposed this week, when Google announced it was terminating sales of the "Glass Explorer", a smart eyewear device that helped to define the emerging field of wearable electronics.

I. How Quickly the Buzz Built Around Ambiguous AR Wearable

Google X developed the optical head-mounted display (OHMD) in mid-2011.  Where as some other wearable projects like the recently Facebook Inc. (FB) acquired Oculus VR seek to outfit the user with a bulky, but high-resolution head-mounted display for gaming, Google's ambitions were for a lighter device you'd wear in your daily life.  In principle, Glass Explorer sounded much more promising than Oculus in its ambiguous potential and its portability.

Google X Glass prototypes
From crude prototypes, in 2011, buzz quickly built around Google X's smart glass project.

But the project was stymied by several crucial stumbles.

First there was the problem of price and availability.  It cost $1,500 USD for a developer to buy the device itself.  Released in April 2013, the device was only available via a "limited beta" invited to 8,000 developers who had to pony up the full price of the device.  For most, that price was way to high.  That had marginally expanded to around 10-14k users by April 2014, a year later [source].

Price was often cited as the biggest obstacle, but other surveys questioned that.  Only roughly 1 in 8 people surveyed by Glass Almanac in mid-2014 expresed interest in buying the device were its price cut to a third -- to $500 to 600 USD.

Google Glass likelihood to buy

After promising a public release by mid-2014, it instead announced a "more open beta" in May 2014.  The more open beta (still priced at $1,500 USD) allowed the non-developer crowd to apply to test the device.

Google has stubbornly refused to release sales figures for the device.  But as CIO Magazine pointed out last year, an estimate can be gleaned by the "Glass Explorer" community' number of likes.  In total, the community now has a little over 48,000 likes, indicating that Google has likely sold no more than 50,000 Glass Explorer units since launch in 2013.  Conservatively we can estimate a maximum lifetime sales figure of 100,000 or less.  Of those who bought the device, only around 10-15k appear to have become habitual hardcore users.

The mixed reaction outside of hardcore fans brings us to the device's second point -- questions of utility.  Google saw mild interest in the device from warehouse firms (who eyed its potential for inventory tracking), police departments, commercial airlines, and from medical technologists.  But enterprise reception was overall tepid.

Google Glass Maps
Glass Explorer users only have access to a little over a hundred official apps for the device.

Google, for its part tried to bake in useful functionality like Maps, Search, and Messaging via updates.  It also opened up the device to third-party development with the release of the Mirror API in Mar. 2013.  But with in-app ads banned for Glass Exploreer apps  -- known as "Glassware" -- and with the small userbase, the device was a novelty at best for developers.  Glass Almanac estimates that official Glassware didn't cross the 100 app mark until Nov. 2014.

II. Fear of the Glasshole

Third there was the issue of the device's growing negative image, which followed closely hand in hand with concerns of privacy. For some reason Google Glass Explorer users became associated with rude, creepy, or otherwise inappropriate behavior.  By April 2013 the blogosphere had come up with a special slur to describe rude Glass Explorer users -- "glassholes." [source]

Privacy wise, concern revolves around the Glass Explorer's camera, a low resolution image sensor capable of snapping 5 megapixel forward facing photos or 720p video.  The changes prompted Google to make firmware changes to make it more visible when you active the device's recording features.

Glass Explorer Edition

It's curious in some ways that Glasses would be picked on, given the low resolution.  People are increasingly wearing GoPro cameras out and about, but GoPro hasn't seemed to generate the same backlash, despite representing arguably more of a privacy threat.  Likewise, there's little that Glass Explorer can do imaging-wise, that you can't do with a smartphone.

AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc. (AMC) was among the first businesses to start kicking out Google Glass users. In Jan. 2014 it called the Dept. of Homeland Security (DHS) to remove a Glass Explorer patron from a screening of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.  The patron was questioned and released.  By Nov. 2014 the device had been banned from movie theaters by the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).

And for every hater more simply didn't know the device existed. More than 1 in 2 Americans apparently had never heard of "Google Glasses", according to a survey by YouGov.

Google Glass awareness -- YouGov
[Image Source: YouGov]

Paradoxically even in the face of these growing, highly visible issues some evangelists remained wildly unrealistic about the commercial prospects of the device, compounding its problems.  Take Business Insider Intelligence, for instance, who forecast sales of nearly a million Google Glass Explorer units last year, close to 2.5 million this year, and more than 21 million by 2018.  BI Intelligence claimed the Google product would create a $10.5B USD market by 2018.

III. I Have Been Bent and Broken, But -- I Hope -- Into a Better Shape

Its evangelists said Glass Explorer would be making billions in no time flat.  But after a rocky ride it is the critics that are crowing over Google's decision to suspend sales of the Glass Explorer.

Google Glass Dev

In the short term that means that Google's smart glasses sales will drop to a big fat goose egg -- not exactly the millions some had predicted.  Google X tried to put a cheerful spin on the shuttering, commenting:

It’s hard to believe that Glass started as little more than a scuba mask attached to a laptop. We kept on it, and when it started to come together, we began the Glass Explorer Program as a kind of “open beta” to hear what people had to say....

As part of this transition, we’re closing the Explorer Program so we can focus on what’s coming next. January 19 will be the last day to get the Glass Explorer Edition. In the meantime, we’re continuing to build for the future, and you’ll start to see future versions of Glass when they’re ready. (For now, no peeking.)

Thanks to all of you for believing in us and making all of this possible. Hang tight—it’s going to be an exciting ride.

As the comment hints at, this story may not be over yet.  There may yet be another chapter ahead.

Glass Explorer pieces

TechCrunch and other sources are reporting that the OHMD project is being transferred from Google [X] to recently-acquired smart home firm, Nest Labs, a division under the leadership of former iPod-creator Tony Faddell.  TechCrunch writes that it expects a new model of Google Glasses might be unveiled at Google I/O in late June.

Nest red
Google Glass is going away, and only Nest Labs can bring it back -- maybe. [Image Source: Nest]

Reportedly Google is working with Intel Corp. (INTC) on new prototypes with more powerful onboard processors.  We shall see.  The only sure thing at this point is this.  In three days, Google will stop selling smart glasses.  And that's a major disappointment for fans of the project, scarce as they may be.

Even if Google does return to the smart glasses niche, it will have to consider carefully how to avoid another rise and fall like Glass Explorer has seen.  Google [X] prides itself for its aloof futurism.  But Google's decision reminds us that even the proud decision is at the mercy of its corporate benefactor.  Great expectations can be cruel.

Sources: Google [X] on Google+, TechCrunch





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