Early this morning, while most of the West Coast slept, Google took the next steps in introducing Google Glass to the world.
A sleek website, highlighted by a crisp, new video, started to answer basic questions about the device for the broader world. How does it look? What does it do? Can I use it while dancing with a ballerina? (You can.)
Along with the new glimpses of Glass came a contest designed to lure early adopting enthusiasts in the United States. The simple request: "Using Google+ or Twitter, tell us what you would do if you had Glass, starting with the hashtag #ifihadglass." Contestants have until February 27 to make their pitch, and if successful, they still have to pay $1,500 to get the Explorer edition. Twitter quickly lit up with ideas, from recording fencing bouts to secretly checking Wikipedia while talking with friends. (Then there was Andre Torrez, who said he "could record your face and location and give it to a massive advertising company.")
A move to the mainstream
What's noteworthy here are the many steps Google is taking to position Glass as a mainstream product, useful in all manner of situations. The typical Google product rollout is to hold an hourlong event with the press, put up a Web page, and start selling. In contrast, Glass is a product that Google is introducing over a period of years -- announced in 2012, it won't be available to consumers until next year at the earliest. Why the slow rollout? In part, the reasons are practical: Both the hardware and the software are still in development. And as a product with no competition, Glass can afford to take some extra time coming to market.
But it may turn out that Glass' biggest challenge in the marketplace isn't the technology itself but perception. Already, Googlers spotted wearing the devices are being derided on Twitter and TechCrunch as "Glassholes." When a Glass-wearing Googler walked into Shotwell's, a bar in the Mission, owner Tom Madonna was aghast: "They (were) wearing Google Glasses! In public! In A BAR!"
"When you buy a new phone, it's in your pocket, but this, you're wearing something on your face," Madonna told Alexis Madrigal in The Atlantic. "Anyone that cares what they look like is not gonna wear Google glasses. That's my opinion," Madonna said. "If you are super nerdy and you like to show off that you're in tech and smart and all those things, I can see you probably wearing Google Glasses, but you are probably in a bubble or...new."
It's a widely held view, and one that may prove definitive, particularly if Glass can't deliver the experiences promised in that video Google released today. And yet many of the same criticisms of Glass -- it's a weirdo nerd contraption for your head -- could also be said of Bluetooth headsets, which sold 40 million units in their first four years on the market. Sales slowed as the devices came to be perceived as eyesores. But the headsets serve a single purpose -- making phone calls -- that itself is on the decline. Google Glass promises to deliver a dynamic heads-up display for the world around you. It just has to convince you to try it.
So how does Google do that? The strategy looks like this.
1. Arm the developers.
2. Court evangelists.
3. Win the mainstream.
The arming of developers began last year, at Google I/O, when Glass-wearing parachutists jumped out of blimps and streamed the entire thing to an audience of slack-jawed programmers inside San Francisco's Moscone Center. It continued last month at Google Glass Foundry, when developers in New York and San Francisco got to start building applications for the device. Google coyly teased the event with a series of photos that said nothing about software development but still managed to show a diverse group of developers looking handsome and futuristic. The photos were reposted to nearly every tech news outlet on the Web.
The result of these efforts will be to ensure that a range of applications are available for Glass the day it launches, likely including some that you already use today on your smartphone. Evernote CEO Phil Libin told me that he began dreaming about all the ways his service could work with Glass the moment he saw it; when I asked the PR team whether the company had attended Glass Foundry last month, I got the kind of swift "no comment" that can only be the result of a nondisclosure agreement. But apps like Evernote will be essential to Glass' prospects -- familiar apps will make a strange, new device seem less so.
Google's next step is to build an army of people who can promote Glass by word of mouth. In the year since the device was announced, Google has regularly shown off Glass to visitors in Mountain View and guests at its parties. It gave demonstrations to tech reporters, this one included. In a triumph of aspirational marketing, Google put Glass on runway models at a Diane von Furstenburg show for Fashion Week. And Googlers are increasingly spotted wearing Glass in the wild -- Sergey Brin, who runs the Google X division where Glass is being built, is rarely spotted in public these days without it.
All these moves start to build buzz for Glass, as people given early access brag to friends about their experience wearing the device. To date Google has managed the neat trick of showing Glass off enough times to build awareness while still having a sighting feel like a genuine event, something you talk about with friends for days after.
Today's move will only create more evangelists. The #ifihadglass hashtag is already taking off on Twitter and Google+. The contestants will undoubtedly come up with creative uses for Glass that only serve to make the product look cooler. And it will all get outsized attention, as we collectively wonder whether wearable computing is on the verge of breaking through to the mainstream and whether Google is the company that makes it happen.
All of which will lead to step three. To win the mainstream Google will have to persuade those skeptics that wearable computers offer significant and unique benefits, enough to offset the risk of being branded a Glasshole by passersby. The surest way to do that is ubiquity -- but how does Google sell Glass in the first place?
Here's where those rumored retail stores come into play. As with other breakthrough devices, including the iPhone and the iPad, Glass benefits from first-hand experience. Snap a few photos, take some video, Google a few things with your voice, and suddenly that skepticism begins to soften.
None of these strategies will matter if Glass itself falls short -- if the user interface proves too difficult to muster, if the battery life falls short, if the price doesn't come down from $1,500 fast enough. Perceptions can be hard to change, and the critics will only get louder when the device comes to market. But Google, methodical and relentless, is taking the long view. If Google Glass is a success in 2014, it will be because of steps the company starts taking years before it ever went on sale.