Google wearables: A solution looking for a rich nerd
Some revolutions never happen. This might be one of them
+Analysis If you've spent any time looking at transport technology - how cars and trains got here - you've got a head start over most VCs and pundits in understanding wearable computing. I'll explain why.
And Google hasn't waited for technology to get smaller or better or cheaper - it's forging ahead, creating a platform while others hesitate. It wants to tame the Wild West that is wearable computing today - or, more accurately, own it. So instead of "inventing" wearable computing, Apple will now be obliged to "re-invent" it. And looking at the developer documentation, Google's done a nice job.
But the really big questionmarks over this market haven't yet been addressed. Beyond the fitness/health niches, all the general purpose wearables today are really a consumer "solution" looking for a problem. The benefits (current and future) accrue entirely to the manufacturer. They get more data about us in their vast data warehouses, or increase their footprint in areas which might be useful in the future, such as home automation. This is all still technology push.
What's in it for us?
No doubt it's good for Google, as the world's largest personal data collector, for us all to convert to Android Wear. It will be another gold mine for the spooks. The data industry finds another part of the analog world to record and analyse. But there's no sign of any significant demand, or pull.
That's because the wearables today simply don't add much convenience to our lives - but still incur a add a considerable cost and inconvenience of their own. Give me a wearable that I didn't ever have to recharge, or only needed to recharge once a month, that cost under £20, and that gave reliable notifications of calls or messages received on my phone, and instantly gave me a zoomable map - and maybe then we're talking.
Has Google solved any of this with Android Wear? Well, look at the video - and you tell me.
In this 90-second video, you will see a smartphone just once. At 10 seconds in, somebody is looking at a phone as they board a bus. (Is it a Google Bus, about to be overturned by anti-capitalist protestors? We never find out).
The most striking thing in this phone-less imaginary world is how much convenience the Android Wear watch offers over having No Phone. But how little it offers to anyone already carrying a phone - especially carrying one in their hand.
These are what people in the video use their Wear device to do: receive traffic info, receive weather info, an electronic boarding pass, send a text message, ID music, and open a garage door. How many of these applications or services were touted by Microsoft for SPOT 12 years ago? Almost all of them. How many are not in smartphone apps we already use daily? Possibly the garage door. That's it.
Steam and diesel
It amazes technology historians that Britain developed 20,000 miles (32,000km) of railway around the middle of the 19th century. No village in the land was further than 15 miles from a railway station, and many communities had a choice of two. The operating companies were simultaneously the largest companies in the world at the time - I believe LNW, today's West Coast Main Line, was the largest. And yet, because, they were debt-ridden and had overextended themselves, they were also constantly broke. They staggered on because stream-powered rail was a vastly superior technology to horses or canals; it was the only game in town.
But at the first sign of competition, from urban trams at the turn of the 20th Century, the edifice collapsed. The British train companies were "grouped" and then, later, nationalised.
In other countries, whose industrial development lagged behind the UK (ie, everyone), the mind-boggling track splurge never took place, because a more "personal" and convenient transport technology came along: the internal combustion engine. Countries developed urban mass transit, and trunk routes between conurbations, but everything else was left to make internal combustion engine-powered travel easier.
Some pundits (and readers) see an inexorable progression of the dominant technology platform into ever smaller and more wearable things. This enthusiasm was summed up by Martin Geddes recently: "Luggage, portable, mobile, wearable, implantable, ingestible, excretable. One day, you will be crapping computers, the new human parasite". Wearable enthusiasts point to our capacity for carrying multiple gadgets around with us.
But for a Wearable World to transpire, where it is the dominant platform, the smartphone has to give way. We must imagine it will collapse just as the Victorian train companies collapsed. I simply don't see that, for the reason Google has inadvertently illustrated in its video.
In developed markets we already have general purpose smartphones that do everything Google has demonstrated: there's no killer app, which translates into significantly greater convenience. Since voice remains the most popular human communication mechanism, so the phone - or a phone, of some kind - will be with us.
Is this "New Era of Wearable Computing" really just next year's round-up of Earpieces? I'm beginning to think it is. And that doesn't sound anything like as sexy, does it? ®