Google Glass Explorer: Marketing Brilliance, or a Brag Too Far?

By Chris Mills on at

Amidst the hubbub of the first wave of real people getting their hands on the fabled Google Glass, something's being ignored: the Explorer programme is a tech launch, done as we've never seen before. Thing is, it hasn't been a no-holds-barred success for Google.

You've probably heard of Google Glass: basically a heads-up display for life, that theoretically lets you do lots of smartphone-y things, like checking your email or Googling stuff, without actually using said smartphone. Unveiled a year ago at Google I/O by Sergey Brin, Google co-founder and overseer of the Google X Labs, Glass has become the poster-boy of the wearable-computing craze sweeping the technology world.

One of the unusual (or 'disruptive', in Silicon-Valley-ese) facts about Google Glass is the beta-testing programme Google's undertaken. Project Glass was first launched in 2012, and full retail versions aren't expected until 2014. Nonetheless, Google launched the #ifihadglass campaign a few months ago, allowing wannabe cyborgs to tweet what they would do #iftheyhadglass. Around 8,000 lucky respondents were chosen, allowing them the chance to pony up £1,100 to buy a set of Google Glass Explorer right now. Add that onto those who pre-ordered Glass at I/O 2012 (for the same £1,100), and that creates around 10,000 people who are #wanderingaroundwithglass, almost a year before its general-public release.

This is a marked contrast to the normal state of affairs surrounding technology launches. Traditionally, prototypes are kept tethered to desks, protected by spies and FBI agents, and generally guarded like the MacGuffin in a C-rate action film. The idea behind this is that the 'unveiling' of a new product, with lots of anticipation and tension and probably scantily-clad ladies, will build a butt-load of hype around the new product, driving the Twitterati into a feeding frenzy and causing misguided souls to queue outside Apple stores for hours. It's a tried and tested formula, so for Google to be turning their backs on conventional product-launch wisdom is a brave move.

From a publicity perspective, the Explorer programme has been a runaway success. As well as netting it a cool £10 million in cold hard cash, the Explorer programme gives Google publicity and hype beyond its wildest dreams. Normally, PR firms have to give away vast amounts of stuff to get individual products trending on Twitter, but Google managed to get millions of people gagging to over-pay it for buggy software and prototype hardware. There's no doubt that in the short-term, the Explorer programme is raising cult levels of awareness around Glass; but in the longer run, Glass won't just be a niche product, but (Google hopes) a mainstay of everyday technology.

It's in this longer-term perception of Glass that Google's Explorer programme may be less than ideal. People can only sustain hype for so long, and I've got a feeling that a few months may be the limit. The evidence is clear -- Apple's winning formula, which has driven record-breaking sales figures, relies on launching a product, having a pregnant pause during which pre-orders are open and marketing ramps up, followed by the launch a couple weeks after the initial Jobs talky-talky. Products with much promise, but little by way of delivery, lose a lot of the buzz surrounding their launch, as the media coverage and marketing becomes a diluted drip-feed, rather than a slap in the face with a gigantic logo. Take the Pebble smartwatch as an example -- launch date slipped by around six months from the initial promise, and despite incredible interest around the product itself, it's faded into relative obscurity.

And loss of buzz isn't Google's only problem. Wise men (and OKCupid-bound creepers) often say that you only get to make a first impression once; that's especially true in the tech world, where attention spans are short and opinions are as in-depth as a YouTube comment. Although the Google Glass Explorer edition is a prototype, and unlikely ever to go on general sale in its current form, its well-documented flaws will almost certainly haunt further versions of Glass. Reviews have semi-slated the limited functionality and poor battery life, and while I'm sure those are flaws that will be fixed (or at least made better) before launch, that bad association is made, and will take years to shake.

Furthermore, perhaps Glass' biggest barrier to adoption is the privacy concern -- a problem that hasn't been helped by the Explorer version being hacked by an intrepid dev to take a photo with just a wink. Privacy nuts are already signing petitions and banning Google Glass from bars; the negative publicity they generate, before Google's really had a chance to address the problem, puts Glass in serious danger of being still-born.

It's a shame, because the open, transparent development procedure has a lot going for it. Beyond the transparent veil of publicity, there's a further use for Explorer: Google's got themselves an unbeatable collection of individuals, all of whom are paying to do beta testing on Google's behalf. Hopefully, this will lead to a consumer version of the tech that doesn't have any of the teething problems traditionally associated with first-gen products. That's the ideal outcome.

My only concern is that in the process of getting the perfect product, Google might leave Glass -- a project that could be the future of wearable computing -- with a mighty hangover that'll take years of some serious technological painkillers to clear. That'd be a mighty shame.