The sharing economy
The news this week that Google Glass is to make a comeback as a business tool prompted this stray thought: Glass was inevitably doomed as a consumer item because it doesn't share well. Oh, certainly, you can take a photo and email it to a friend or post it online, but what you can't do is show what you're seeing to your friends in real time. Imagine a bunch of teens gathered behind the head of one of them peering into Glass's field of view the way they do around each others' phones. Can't be done.
Granted, the early version of Glass had other problems, briefly summarized as bugs, battery life, and budget. There's no reason why Glass shouldn't wind up being a successful product in the right market sector, and it's by no means unprecedented for the first version of something genuinely new, which Glass is, to find an entirely different market and set of uses than those its creator first imagined.
Viewed this way, it's possible to see individualism as part of Google's essential nature. All its successful services - search engine, maps, Gmail, Android, the Chrome browser, potentially self-driving cars - are about an individual and their machine. Glass fits right in. The search engine, browser, and mapping all ultimately date to the desktop era. As an operating system, Android is something an individual chooses, and then uses apps to implement sharing. Cars especially are American icons of individualism. It's notable that Europeans talk about autocars ("autonomous cars") in terms of improved road-sharing and lowered energy costs through platooning, while Americans talk more about the personal benefits of not having to spend so much time focused on driving in their daily commute. In the 1950s through 1970s, teens coming of age often derived their sense of personal independence from owning a car; today, research suggests that the younger generation has their sense of personal freedom tied up instead in their phones.
Related to this, alongside the Glass revival came the news that Google is separating out its services so that people using YouTube or Gmail no longer need to sign in with a Google+ ID. The result is myriad media writing the service's likely end and positing reasons why anyone might have thought it was successful. Fortune magazine suggests that the result is to make it more likely that Google will buy Twitter. (I hope not, although I can see the twisted logic that if Twitter is in trouble it *should* be bought by a company that can't make social networking work.)
To me, this is a positive step, if only because it seems obvious that someone who wants to use YouTube shouldn't be forced to register for some other service they're not interested in, any more than they should be required to use their real names for everything. Making them do so is exactly the kind of leveraging of dominance in one market to build a presence in another that antitrust law is supposed to prevent. I suspect Google+ will linger much longer than the obit-writers think - although Google has become known lately for abruptly executing services it doesn't want to support any more, no matter how much users protest (see: Reader, Video, many others), so who really knows?
At Mashable, Seth Fiegerman has a lengthy inside look at Google+ as an effort to compete with Facebook. The story he tells sounds like the kind of obsession sports figures sometimes get when a particular opponent makes big enough waves. Rarely, however, do either athletes or technology companies succeed by playing their opponents' s games. IBM, despite trying, couldn't beat all its many PC company competitors; Microsoft couldn't beat Apple for innovative design company; and Google, no matter how hard it tries, can't beat Facebook at building the social graph. Facebook, meanwhile, seems to have its own expansion plans in mind: this week the company filed for a patent allowing lenders to determine users' creditworthiness by looking at their friends list - clear potential for digital redlining.
This all still leaves Google with the problem it was trying to solve. As financial pundits point out every quarter, although the company's revenues keep climbing, its ads' cost-per-click keeps declining. Ads are still its only source of revenues; it competes for those ads with Facebook and countless others; Apple's upcoming native ad blocking on iOS, as Charles Arthur writes, will pose a giant new problem. Even if Google fights back in kind, at some point we will hit - may have already - peak advertising. It is simply not possible for advertising on its own to support everything people want it to support. Google is still growing massively, but it still needs - and knows it needs - that elusive second product.
Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.