I love covering Google, because the company is unpredictable. They believe in crazy moon-shot projects and have the resources to pursue them. And they put stuff into the public eye way, way before it's ready for prime time.
It's fun enough when Google does this with software or online services. But it's really fun when they break new ground on hardware platforms.
That's what they did with Google Glass. The wearable platform was ahead of its time, too advanced as a cultural phenomenon to be understood -- a "jetpack for our minds," to quote my own blog post.
Here's what's going on.
Good bye, Glass (for now)
Google will stop selling the Explorer edition of Glass. Monday is the last day you can buy one. (If you're interested in buying Glass, you can find it in the Google Play Store.)
Google Glass had been a research project inside the Google X research and development group. The Google Glass Explorer program, launched in the U.S. on April 15, 2013, was mainly for software developers and selected innovators, who were offered a prototype device for $1,500.
It will now move into a product division of its own like a regular product. Work on Glass will continue to be headed by its current chief, Ivy Ross. But she will report to Tony Fadell.
Fadell has already had a singular career. He was considered one of the "fathers" of the iPod at Apple, rising from a design and strategy contractor for the iPod to eventually leading that division from 2006 to 2008. Two years later, he founded Nest Labs, which makes the Nest smart thermostat and other home automation products. Google acquired Nest -- and Fadell -- a year ago.
Instead of the "beta" Explorer program and the current version of Glass, Google will focus on "future versions of Glass," according to the official announcement on Google+.
The next future version "will be cheaper and have longer battery life, improved sound quality and a better display," according to Ross as quoted in The Wall Street Journal. Best of all, she said, Google intends to associate Glass with more familiar types of eyewear, which probably means they'll be integrated better into prescription glasses and sunglasses.
For those of us who own Google Glass, we'll still be able to use them and they're still covered under warranty.
Why people think Google Glass 'failed'
Google Glass is and was a highly successful project, whose reputation was tarnished for two specific reasons that were the opposite of reality.
The first reputation-busting slur against Glass by the hostile San Francisco bar patrons, late night TV comedians and social media negative Nancys was the camera. Google Glass was falsely pegged as an invader of privacy. It has a camera on the front, and people who didn't know what they were talking about assumed that the camera was slurping up photos or videos and sending them to a secret underground bunker to be used later against whoever was unlucky enough to come into a Glasshole's gaze.
In reality, Google Glass was the worst spy camera ever invented. Unlike every smartphone, spy catalog product, camera watch or home security camera, anyone near a Glass user can see clearly whether the camera is on or not, and also exactly where the camera is pointed. If you're within 10 feet of a Glass user, you can even see a thumbnail of the picture or video on the outside of Glass.
The second slam against Glass was that it was clunky and awkward. But the truth is that Google Glass represents a massive leap forward toward elegance and minimalism in wearable computing.
Just look at the career of Thad Starner, who is a technical lead and manager on the Google Glass project. Starner has been working on this kind of wearable computing for two decades. If you want to see what came before Google Glass, just check out this interview of Starner by actor Alan Alda, filmed in 1996. Or check out this picture of wearable computing projects on the MIT wearable computing page.
Wearable computing prototypes at universities across the world, which had a fraction of the capabilities of Google Glass, have for years involved backpacks, helmets, goggles and other comparatively bulky and awkward components.
Yes, a small piece of plastic over the right eye and curving around to the side of the head is more "stuff" on someone's face than we're used to. But compared to what came before, it's minimal and elegant.
I believe that with further aggressive design and development, especially under the capable stewardship of Tony Fadell -- who has proved both with the iPod and the Nest that he understands simplicity. (No, Nick Bilton, the Tony Fadell version of glass won't look like this.)
The truth is that eyeglasses and sunglasses are uniquely ideal platforms for zapping contextual information into the eye or eyes. Google Glass and similar products are absolutely going to happen and we're all going to love them.
Given all the problems Google has solved to create Glass, the two remaining issues necessary for market success -- the privacy issue and the social acceptability issue -- are trivial, and Google will probably solve them in the next iteration or two.
So as we say goodbye to the Google Glass Explorer program, and the Glass project at Google X labs, we can look forward to seeing the first versions of Google Glass, the consumer electronics product.
I can't wait.