Messages From the Future: The Fate of Google Glass

Man, time travel sucks. I mean think about it, you know all this stuff- and I mean you really know this stuff, but of course you can’t say, “You’re wrong. And I know, because I’m from the future.”

So you pretend like its just your opinion and then sit there grinding your teeth while everyone else bloviates their opinions without actually knowing anything. Of course my old friends hate me. I mean I was always a know-it-all, but I really do know it all this time, which must make me seem even worse.

Anyway I was catching up on current events and was surprised to realize that I had arrived here smack dab before Google started selling Glass.

Truth is, I’d actually forgotten about Google Glass until I read that they are about to launch it again. Which itself should tell you something about its impact on the future.

So here’s the deal on Google Glass. At least as far as I know – what with my being from the future and all.

It flopped.

Nobody bought it.

sergeyOh sure they sold SOME. Ultimately Google Glass got used mostly by very specialized workers who typically operated in solitary and didn’t have to interact with other humans. Of the general public, there were a few geeks, opportunistic future-seekers and silicon valley wannabes, who bought them to keep up with developments or hoping to look as “cool” as Sergey did when he was famously photographed sitting on the subway (some PR guy later admitted that the whole “I’m just a normal guy slumming on the subway looking like some hipster cyborg” thing was just an orchestrated Glass marketing ploy arranged by Googles PR firm) but they didn’t. That’s because none of those geeks were young, mincingly-manicured-to-appear-casually-hip, billionaires. No. They just looked overtly dorky and as I recall, slightly desperate for the smug rub off that comes with publicly flashing a “cool” new product. But that didn’t happen for them. Quite the opposite.

Glass just smacked of the old I’m-an-important-technical-guy-armor syndrome. The 90’s cellphone belt holster. The 00’s blinky blue bluetooth headset that guys left in their ears blinking away even while not in use. And then Google Glass.

The whole “I’m just a normal guy slumming on the subway looking like some hipster cyborg” thing was just an orchestrated Glass marketing ploy arranged by Google’s PR firm.

You know, sometimes you see a new innovation and it so upsets the world’s expectations, it’s such a brilliant non sequitur, that you can’t imagine the events that must have lead to such an invention. You wonder what the story was. The iPhone was one of those.

But Google Glass was so mis-timed and straightforward – the exact conversations that lead to it seemed transparent. In hindsight, they were just trying too hard, too early, to force something that they hoped would be a big idea – and eventually would be, if only a little over a decade later, by someone else.

Here’s the scene:

Sergey and his hand-picked team sit in a super secret, man cave romper room on the Google Plex campus. Then Sergey, doing his best to pick up the magician’s torch as an imagined version of Steve Jobs says:

“As we have long discussed, the day will come when no one will hold a device in their hand. The whole handheld paradigm will seem old and archaic. And I want Google to be the company that makes it happen – now. We need to change everything. I want to blow past every consumer device out there with the first persistent augmented reality solution. The iPhone will be a distant memory. Money is no object, how do we do it?”

And then within 10 minutes of brainstorming (if even), of which 8 mostly involved a geek-speak top-lining of the impracticality of implants, bioware and direct neural interfaces, someone on the team stands with a self-satisfied twinkle of entitlement in his eye stemming from his too good to be true ticket to Google’s billion-dollar playground wonder-world which he secretly fears is little more than the result of his having been in the right place at the right time and might rather be more imaginatively wielded by half a dozen brilliant teenagers scattered throughout that very neighborhood, let alone the globe, says:

“We can do this, think about it. We need to give the user access to visual content, right? And audio. And our solution must receive voice commands. So the platform that would carry all that must naturally exist close to each of the relevant senses – somewhere on the head. And that platform – already exists. (murmurs around the room) Ready? Wait for it… a HAT!”

A sniff is heard.

A guy wearing a t-shirt with numbers on it says: “…Augmented Reality …Hat?”

And then someone else, who is slightly closer to being worthy of his access to the Google moneybags-action playset, says, “No, not a hat… Glasses! Think about it – glasses have been in the public consciousness forever as a device for seeing clearly, right? Well, enter Google, with glasses… that let you see everything clearly, more… clearly.”

Everyone in the room nods and smiles. Even obvious ideas can carry a certain excitement when you happen to experience their moment of ideation. This effect of course must be especially pronounced when you’ve passed through a recruitment process that inordinately reveres academic measures of intelligence.

Either that, or it was just Sergey’s idea from the shower that morning.

In any event, the iPhone was such a truly disruptive idea that one cannot as easily pick apart the thought process that lead to it. Too many moving parts. Too much was innovative.

But Glass was a simple idea. Not simple in a good way, like it solved a problem in a zen, effortless way. No, simple like the initial idea was not much of a leap and yet they still didn’t consider everything they needed to.

What didn’t they consider?

Well having seen it all play out, I’d say: Real people – real life. I think what Google completely missed, developing Glass in their private, billion dollar bouncy-house laboratory, were some basic realities that would ultimately limit adoption of Glass’ persistent access to technology: factors related to humanity and culture, real-world relationships, social settings and pressures, and unspoken etiquette.

Oh and one other bit of obviousness. Sex. And I mean the real kind, with another person’s actual living body – two real people who spend a lot of money to look good.

But I guess I get why these, of all über geeks missed that.

While admittedly, sunglasses have found a long-time, hard-earned place in the world of fashion as a “cool” accessory when well appointed and on trend, in hindsight, Google glass should not have expected to leap across the fashion chasm so easily.  There are good reasons people spend umpteen fortunes on contact lenses and corrective eye surgeries. Corrective glasses, while being a practical pain in the ass also effectively serve to make the largest swath of the population less attractive.

Throughout history, glasses have been employed predominantly as the defacto symbol of unattractiveness, of loserdom. They are the iconic tipping point between cool and uncool. The thin line separating the Clark Kents from the Supermen. Countless young ugly ducklings of cinema needed only remove that awkward face gear to become the stunning beauty, the glassless romantic lead. How many make-over shows ADD a pair of glasses?

Throughout history, glasses have been employed predominantly as the defacto symbol of unattractiveness, of loserdom. They are the iconic tipping point between cool and uncool. The thin line separating the Clark Kents from the Supermen.

Sure, there are a few fetishists out there, but for every lover of glasses wearing geekery, there are a thousand more who prefer their prospective mates unadorned.

Leave it to a bunch of Halo-playing, Dorito-eating engineers to voluntarily ignore that basic cultural bias. And worse, to maybe think all they had to do was wear them themselves to make them cool somehow.

“But didn’t you SEE Sergey on the subway?” You ask. “He looked cool.”

Well, Sergey had indeed been styled by someone with taste and has been valiantly strutting his little heart out on the PR runway in an obviously desperate effort to infuse some residual “billionaires wear them” fashion credibility into his face contraption.

But look at that picture again, he also looked alone, and sad.

And to think Google Glass was a really good idea, you sort of had to be a loner. A slightly sad, insecure, misfit. Typically riding the train with no one to talk to. Incidentally, later- before Facebook died, Facebook Graph showed that Glass wearers didn’t have many friends. Not the kind they could hug or have a beer or shop with.

And to think Google Glass was a really good idea, you sort of had to be a loner. A slightly sad, insecure, misfit. Typically riding the train with no one to talk to.

Wearing Google Glass made users feel like they didn’t have to connect with the actual humans around them. “I’m elsewhere – even though I appear to be staring right at you.” Frankly the people who wore Google Glass were afraid of the people around them. And Glass gave them a strange transparent hiding place. A self-centered context for suffering through normal moments of uncomfortable close proximity. Does it matter that everyone around you is more uncomfortable for it?

At least with a hand-held phone there was no charade. The very presence of the device in hand, head down, was a clear flag alerting bystanders to the momentary disconnect. “At the moment, I’m not paying attention to you.”

But in it’s utterly elitist privacy, Google Glass offered none of that body language. Which revealed other problems.

At least with a hand-held phone there was no charade. The very presence of the device in hand, head down, was a clear flag alerting bystanders to the momentary disconnect. “At the moment, I’m not paying attention to you.”

But in it’s utterly elitist privacy, Google Glass offered none of that body language.

In the same way that the introduction of cellphone headsets made a previous generation of users on the street sound like that crazy guy who pees on himself as he rants to no one, Google Glass pushed its users past that, occupying all their attention, their body in space be damned – mentally disconnecting them from their physical reality. With Glass, not even their eyes were trustworthy.

Actually, it was commonly joked that Glass users often appeared down right “mentally challenged” as they stared through you trying to work out some glitch that no one else in the world could see. They’d stutter commands and and tap their heads and blink and look around lost and confused.

Suddenly we all realized what poor multi-taskers these people really were.

Any wearer who actually wanted to interact with the real world quickly found they had to keep taking off their Google Glasses and stowing them, or else everyone got mad.

It was simply deemed unacceptable to wear them persistently. And in fact users reported to having been socially pressured to use them quite a lot as they had previously used their phones. Pulling them out as needed. Which utterly defeated the purpose. On some level – that’s what broke Google Glass. It wasn’t what it was supposed to be. It wasn’t persistent. It was more cumbersome and socially uncomfortable than the previous paradigm.

People who left them on in social situations were openly called “glassholes”.

People who left them on in social situations were openly called “glassholes”.

They were smirked at, and laughed at walking down the street. I know because I did it too.

There were lots of news reports about people who got punched for wearing them in public. In fact, anecdotally, there were more news reports about people getting beat up for wearing Google Glass in public than I actually saw on the street wearing them. The court of public opinion immediately sided on the position that Google Glass was little more than some random stranger shoving a camera in your face. Other people stopped talking to wearers until they took them off. They didn’t even want it on top of their heads.

In hind sight it was pretty quickly clear Google Glass wasn’t going to be a revolution.

I read an interview somewhere (years from now) that someone on the Google team had admitted that they more than once asked themselves if they were on the right track – but that the sentiment on the team was that they were doing something new. Like Steve Jobs would have done. Steve Jobs couldn’t have known he was on the right track any more than they did – so they pushed forward.

Except that I think Steve Jobs sort of did know better. Or rather, he was better connected to the real world than the boys at Google’s Richie Rich Malibu Dream Labs were. Less dorky and introverted, basically.

The problem with innovation is that all the pieces need to be in place. Good ideas and good motivation can be mistimed. Usually is. That’s all Google Glass was. Like so many reasonable intentions it was just too early. Selling digital music didn’t work until everything was in place – iPods and iTunes were readily available and insanely easy to sync. HDTV didn’t hit until content and economics permitted. And the world didn’t want persistent augmented reality when Google created Glass.

All the above disclosed, Augmented Reality is still indeed your future. It’s just that when it finally comes, well, when it happened, it didn’t look like Google Glass.

Like, at all.

And I know, because I’m from the future.

My First Message From the Future: How Facebook Died

It was a hot, sunny Boston morning in July, 2033 – and suddenly – it was a freezing London evening in Feb 2013, and I had an excruciating headache.

I have no clue what happened. No flash, no tunnel, no lights. It’s like the last 20 years of my life just never happened. Except that I remember them.

Not knowing what else to do I went to the house I used to live in then. I was surprised that my family was there, and everyone was young again. I seemed to be the only one who remembers anything. At some point I dropped the subject because my wife thought I’d gone crazy. And it was easier to let her think I was joking.

It’s hard to keep all this to myself though, so, maybe as therapy, I’ve decided to write it here. Hardly anyone reads this so I guess I can’t do too much damage. I didn’t write this stuff the first time around, and I’m a little worried that the things I share might change events to the point that I no longer recognize them, so forgive me if I keep some aspects to myself.

As it is I already screwed things up by promptly forgetting my wife’s birthday. Jesus Christ, I was slightly preoccupied, I mean, I’m sorry, ok? I traveled in time and forgot to pick up the ring that I ordered 20 years ago… and picked up once already. All sorts of stuff changed after that for a while. But then somehow it all started falling back into place.

Anyway – that’s why I’m not telling you everything. Just enough to save the few of you who read this some pain.

Today I’ll talk about Facebook.

Ok, in the future Facebook, the social network, dies. Well, ok, not “dies” exactly, but “shrivels into irrelevance”, which was maybe just as bad.

Bets are off for Facebook the company. I wasn’t there long enough to find out – it might survive, or it might not, depends on how good they were… sorry, are at diversifying.

At this point perhaps I should apologize for my occasional shifting tenses. I’m finding that time travel makes it all pretty fuzzy. But I’ll do my best to explain what happened…  Happens. Will happen.

Anyway, seeing Facebook back here again in full form, I marvel at the company’s ability to disguise the obviousness of the pending events in the face of analysts, and corporate scrutiny, with so many invested and so much to lose.

But hindsight being 20/20, they should have seen – should see – that the Facebook social network is destined to become little more than a stale resting place for senior citizens, high-school reunions and, well, people whose eyes don’t point in the same direction (it’s true, Facebook Graph showed that one, it was a joke for a while – people made memes – you can imagine). Grandmothers connecting with glee clubs and other generally trivial activities – the masses and money gone.

The Facebook social network is destined to become little more than a stale resting place for senior citizens, high-school reunions and, well, people whose eyes don’t point in the same direction

There were two primary reasons this happened:

First – Mobile (and other changing tech – including gaming, iTV and VR).  I know, I know I’m not the first, or 10,000th guy to say “Mobile” will contribute to Facebook’s downfall. But there is a clue that you can see today that people aren’t pointing out. While others look at Facebook with confidence, or at least hope, that Facebook has enough money and resources to “figure mobile out”, they don’t do it. In fact there is a dark secret haunting the halls of the Facebook campus. It’s a dawning realization that the executive team is grappling with and isn’t open about – a truth that the E-suite is terrified to admit. I wonder if some of them are even willing to admit it to themselves yet.

Here is the relevant clue – the idea that would have saved Facebook’s social network, that would make it relevant through mobile and platform fragmentation – that idea – will only cost its creators about $100K.  That’s how much most of these ideas cost to initiate – it rarely takes more.  Give or take $50k.

That’s all the idea will cost to build and roll out enough to prove. 3-6 months of dev work. Yeah it would have cost more to extend it across Facebook’s network. But that would have been easy for them. So, Facebook has gobs of $100Ks – why hasn’t it been built yet?

The dark secret that has Facebook praying the world doesn’t change too fast too soon (spoiler alert, it does), is that – they don’t have the idea. They don’t know what to build.

Let me repeat that, Facebook, the company, doesn’t have the one idea that keeps their social network relevant into mobile and platform fragmentation. Because if they actually did… it’s so cheap and easy to build, you would already see it. Surely you get that, right?   Even today?

Perhaps you take issue with the claim that only “one idea” is needed. Or perhaps you think they do have the vision and it’s just not so easy; it requires all those resources, big, complex development. And that today it’s being implemented by so many engineers, in so many ways across Facebook with every update. Perhaps you will say that continually sculpting Facebook, adding features, making apps, creating tools for marketers, and add-ons, will collectively add up to that idea.  This is what Facebook would prefer you believe.  And it’s what people hope I guess.

Well, that’s not how it works. Since the days Facebook was founded, you have seen a paradigm shift in the way you interact with technology. And that keeps changing.  I can report that the idea that will dominate within this new paradigm, will not merely be a collection of incremental adjustments from the previous state.

Hell, Facebook was one simple idea once. One vision. It didn’t exist, and then it did(and it didn’t even cost $100K). It answered a specific need.  And so too will this new idea. It won’t be a feature. It won’t look like Facebook. It will be a new idea.

I know, I’ve heard it, “Facebook can just buy their way into Mobile”. You’ve seen that desperation already in the Instagram land grab. It’s as if Mark said “…oh… maybe that’s it..?? …or part of it … Maybe…?”

Cha-ching.

The price was comically huge. Trust me, in the future a billion dollars for Instagram looks even dopier. How much do you think Instagram spent building the initial working version of Instagram? Well, I didn’t work on it, but like most projects of their ilk I am willing to bet it was near my magic number: $100K. I read somewhere that Instagram received $250K in funding early on and I seriously doubt they had to blow through more than half that on the initial build.

And Facebook’s desperate, bloated buy of Instagram is virtual confirmation of the point. See, you don’t buy that, and pay that much, if you have your own vision. If you have the idea.

And Facebook’s desperate, bloated buy of Instagram is virtual confirmation of the point. See, you don’t buy that, and pay that much, if you have your own vision. If you have the idea.

Unfortunately, Facebook will eventually realize that Instagram wasn’t “it” either. No, the idea that will carry social networking into your next decade of platform fragmentation and mobility isn’t formally happening yet. Rather the idea that will make social connections work on increasingly diverse platforms will come about organically. Catching all the established players mostly by surprise. It will be an obvious model that few are thinking about yet.

And that leads us to the second, and most potent, reason Facebook withers – Age.

Facebook found it’s original user-ship in the mid ’00s. It started with college-age users and quickly attracted the surrounding, decidedly youthful, psychographics. This founding population was united by a common life-phase; young enough to be rebelling and searching for a place in the world they can call their own, and just barley old enough to have an impact on developing popular trends.

Well, it’s been almost a decade for you now- time flies. Those spunky, little 20+ year-old facebook founders are now 30+ year-olds and Facebook is still their domain. They made it so. And they still live their lives that way. With Facebook at its center.

But now at 30 things have started to change – now they have kids. Their kids are 6-12 years-old and were naturally spoon-fed Facebook. That’s just the nature of life as a child living under Mom and Dad. You do what they do. You use what they use. You go where they go. Trips to the mall with Mom to buy school clothes. Dad chaperoning sleep-overs.  Messages to Grandma on Facebook.  It’s a lifestyle that all children eventually rebel against as they aggressively fight to carve out their own world.

So give these kids another 6 years, the same rules will apply then. They’ll be full-blown teenagers. They started entering college. They wanted their own place. And importantly, they inherited your throne of influence for future socializing trends. Yup, the generation of Mark Zuckerburgs graduated to become the soft, doughy, conventionally uncool generation they are… or rather, were,  in the future.

So project ahead with me to that future state, do you really think Facebook is going to look to these kids like the place to hang out?? Really? With Mom and Dad “liking” shit? With advertisers searching their personal timelines?

No – way.

 So project ahead to that future state, do you really think Facebook is going to look to these kids like the place to hang out?? Really? With Mom and Dad “liking” shit? With advertisers searching their personal timelines?

No – way.

Don’t even hope for that. See, the mistake a lot of you are making is that Facebook was never a technology – for the users, Facebook has always been a place. And 6-7 years from now these kids will have long-since found their own, cooler, more relevant place – where Mom and Dad (and grandma, and her church, and a gazllion advertisers) aren’t. And it won’t be “Social Network Name #7”, powered by Facebook (but Facebook tries that – so I bought their URL yesterday – I recall they paid a lot for it). You will find it to be a confoundedly elusive place. It will be their own grass-roots network – a distributed system that exists as a rationally pure mobile, platform-agnostic, solution. A technically slippery, bit-torrent of social interaction. A decisive, cynical response to the Facebook establishment, devoid of everything Facebook stood for. At first it will completely defy and perplex the status quo. That diffused, no-there-there status makes advertisers crazy trying to break in to gain any cred in that world. But they don’t get traction. The system, by design, prohibits that. At least for a year or two. Not surprisingly some advertisers try to pretend they are groups of “kids” to weasel in, and it totally blows up in their faces. Duh. It will be a good ol’ wild west moment. As these things go. And they always do go. You’ve seen it before. And the kids win this time too.

 It will be their own grass-roots network – a distributed system that exists as a rationally pure mobile, platform-agnostic, solution. A technically slippery, bit-torrent of social interaction.

Then a smart, 20-year-old kid figures out how to harness the diffusion in a productized solution. Simply, brilliantly, unfettered by the establishment.

And at this point, you might say – “… well… Facebook can buy that!”

Sorry, doesn’t happen. I mean, maybe it could have, but it doesn’t. Don’t forget, Yahoo tried to buy Facebook for a Billion Dollars too.

For a kid, the developer of this new solution is shrewd, and decides that selling out to Facebook would weaken what he and his buddies built – rendering it immediately inauthentic.

Seeing the power of what he holds, this kid classically disses Mark’s desperate offer. It’s all very recursive, and everyone wrote about that. My favorite headline was from Forbes: “Zucker-punched”. And anyway, Google offers him more (which is not a “buy” for Google – later post).

Look, it doesn’t matter, because at that point Facebook is already over because Facebook isn’t “where they are” anymore.

Their parents, Facebook’s founding user-base, stay with Facebook for a while and then some, those who still care how their bodies look in clothes (again Facebook’s Graph, famously showed this), will switch over presumably because they suddenly realized how uncool Facebook had become. Then even more switched because they needed to track their kids and make sure they were not getting caught up in haptic-porn (something I actually rather miss now). And that kicks off the departure domino effect (or “The Great Facebalk”, The Verge, 2021 I believe).

Later, Grandma even switches over. But some of her friends are still so old-timey that she’ll keep her Facebook account so she can share cat pictures with them. And of course, she won’t want to miss the high-school reunions.

some of her friends are still so old-timey that she’ll keep her Facebook account so she can share cat pictures

So that is Facebook’s destiny. And you know, I am from the future. So I know.

Oh one last thing, in Petaluma there’s a 14 year-old kid I bumped into the other day – quite intentionally.  He’s cool.  He’s hungry. When he turns 20, I plan on investing exactly $100K in some crazy idea he’ll have. I have a pretty good feeling about it. I’ll let you know how it goes.