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Premature rejection: Google Glass is pointing the way to the future

The Exchange
Harman integrates Google Glass into smart mirror concept, eyes safer driving with wearables

Despite what its detractors might say, Google (GOOG) is onto something with its Glass project  something big. Though currently only available to a tiny audience as an “alpha” project, the computer in glasses format addresses unmet consumer needs better than existing solutions.

Most of the tech punditry have already declared Glass a joke and a failure, the Apple (AAPL) Newton of the 21st Century. Last week, well-known tech blogger, author and Glass user Robert Scoble declared Glass is doomed, at least for 2014, while another writer, not a user of the current product, called Glass “physically grotesque and glaringly obtrusive.”

But it’s all too easy to look at this early version of the product, with its high price tag and less-than-stellar appearance, and peg it as a loser. It’s also meaningless, like declaring a rough draft or scale model inadequate to meet the standard of a final product.

As Glass gets closer to being a real consumer product, many of the elements that offend will improve. It would be shocking, not to mention unlikely, for Google to start shipping Glass to Best Buys and Radio Shacks in its current $1,500 incarnation. Long before that date, the Glass software will get faster, the silicon chips smaller and, thanks to a partnership with eyeglass maker Warby Parker, the exterior more stylish.

The hands-free benefit

There are many places where it’s advantageous to be connected to the Internet but where your hands aren’t free. Or places where it would be cool to use your smartphone but it’s inconvenient or impossible to hold it.

Think of cooking, bike riding, driving. Or while in an operating room, playing golf or walking through unfamiliar city streets. Even using a phone while walking down familiar streets can be hazardous.

The key feature of Glass presents the user with a small display projected across the field of view, offering directions, reminders and even translations of street signs. Of course, some apps on the Glass product may not make much sense, like a live Twitter feed buzzing with distracting headlines every five seconds. And who can get excited about the app featured at CES this week to control a treadmill via Glass voice commands? But users will be able to sort the useful winners from the useless losers, just as they did when desktop software evolved for smartphones and tablets.

Still, like the first cell phones, portable computers and electronic ink readers, the first incarnation of a computer in glasses strikes some as too bulky, ugly or unwieldy to ever catch on. Remember back in the 1980s, Motorola’s ugly Dynatac mobile phone cost $4,000 and offered just 30 minutes of talk time before the battery died.

There are legitimate questions about how society will integrate Glass and similar devices with almost hidden cameras. Around Silicon Valley, some deride Glass wearers as “glassholes” and certain establishments have banned the device. But there’s hardly a technological marvel of the past 100 years that didn’t challenge social norms of the day. People either assimilated new behaviors or adopted limits, though neither is a perfect solution, as the incident of the iPhone interrupting the New York Philharmonic demonstrated.

Some people have compared Glass to the Segway scooter, but it’s a worthless comparison. The Segway had a single function: transportation. It was perhaps faster than walking but with overwhelming trade offs, including vastly greater cost, bulk and complexity. And it never significantly improved.

A multi-function platform

Glass is more of a multi-function platform designed to handle a wide variety of tasks, in the mold of previous computing platforms such as the PC and smartphone. And while motors and wheels remain about the size they’ve always been, the components of Glass will get ever smaller and cheaper with each passing year.

Smarter critics have compared Glass to Microsoft’s (MSFT) tablet PC initiative of a decade ago. Instead of becoming the next big thing, tablets languished until the iPad arrived.

In some ways, the analogy is apt – Microsoft’s tablets were too expensive, ugly and unwieldy. But more importantly, Microsoft failed to rethink the computing experience for a touchable tablet. Jamming the Windows operating system onto tablets with a stylus taking the place of a mouse created a terrible user interface and required higher-power, battery-hogging processors.

Apple rethought the tablet from a nearly blank page and came up with a winning solution. And that’s just what Google is doing with its “alpha” test, seeking feedback from users and software developers early in the development process. It’s just doing that in public.

And that’s the more legitimate grounds for debate. Apple surely had hideous and underperforming early versions of the iPhone, but never let the public see them. Google has a very different ethos and has shown no qualms about experimenting in public, including numerous flops such as the Wave social network and Nexus Q TV box.

With such a radical new platform, the open testing seems all but inevitable. There are many questions that need to be answered about which functions should be included and how the user interface should operate. And unlike, say, a revolutionary phone, which can be disguised in the case of an ordinary phone, Glass by its very nature is an extremely noticeable device.

It may be that the ridicule and even hatred the early Glass prototypes have attracted will doom the product for evermore. But I wouldn’t bet on it.