Google's Face Palm Foleo

As you may recall, back in 2007, Palm needed to innovate and fast. Whatever faithful consumers they had left were eyeing Apple’s revolutionary iPhone; without a major new product, Palm would fall into obscurity. (Spoiler: they did.) The company had a trick up its sleeve, though. Palm had the Foleo.

On the cusp of the netbook craze, Palm figured the future of mobile was not only in your pocket, but in your briefcase as well. The Foleo was a sort of laptop screen and keyboard for your Treo (or whatever). Link your smartphone and Foleo and you could clack out emails, browse the Web and update spreadsheets from the comfort of a 10” screen and full-ish sized keyboard.

Reaction was swift and near-universally negative. At $500, the Foleo was already in spitting distance of a laptop. Worse, it couldn’t actually do anything without a paired Palm device. Famously, Peter Rojas, Ryan Block, and Joshua Topolsky, then the editors of Engadget, published an open letter to Palm articulating the problems with the device and the company as they perceived them. Two weeks later Palm killed the Foleo without ever releasing it.

There are a million reasons why the Foleo was a terrible idea (and a million more why Palm failed), but the one that sticks out in my mind is the fact that it was just a brick until paired with a mobile device. Consumers don’t like paying for a gizmo that can’t do much of anything without another device. Consumer electronics seem to be moving away from paired ecosystems. Even Apple has decoupled iPhone/iPad setup from syncing with a desktop machine. Buy one device at a time, use as needed.

So it is with Glass, Google’s wearable computer. On its own, the visor-like device sports a WiFi chip, which puts it head and shoulders above the Foleo. However, most users of Glass will pair it with a mobile device, which will give it a persistent connection without ever requiring one to enter a WiFi password.1 Glass, likely, will be either useless or unendingly frustrating without a paired device.

There are more than a few reasons I see Glass failing, but this one in particular, the emphasis on Glass as a secondary device, not a primary one, is ultimately the reason I see it not catching on.

Google is asking a lot of consumers with Glass. I keep hearing chatter across the Web that it is some kind of cool, futuristic device, but I don’t see it that way. I see it as a plaything for the ultra-wealthy, the sort of thing that only makes sense for Google executives.

Consider, for example, the Glass Explorer program. The buzzy social media campaign invites people in the US to apply to be among the first to own Glass.

We’re looking for bold, creative individuals who want to join us and be a part of shaping the future of Glass.

If your fifty word, five photo and fifteen-second video application gets selected, you will get the opportunity to drop $1500 on Glass before anyone else. To boot, the only way to actually retrieve Glass will be to attend a “special pick-up experience” in New York City, Los Angeles or San Francisco. Again, this is for the privilege of buying a device that warrants the presence of yet another device in your pocket. All of this sends a clear message, at least to me: if you don’t have a whole lot of disposable income, Glass isn’t for you.

I think Glass is a joke, Google’s Spruce Goose du jour. Augmented reality is a technology that perennially mystifies and impresses, but its value remains little more than a parlor trick, an admittedly cool one. Sure, if you’re jumping out of an airplane, it’d be nice to have a head-mounted camera with a data connection (in your pocket, remember), but is that really an every-day device?

Google, as ever, makes products for Googlers. That’s the driving force behind the way Gmail is organized, that’s why Buzz rolled out to the world with a hilarious number of privacy holes and that’s why the company thinks a Willy Wonka-esque contest feasible only for residents of the company’s backyards is a good idea.

Google has loads of cash and is probably burning through it to bring Glass to market. They can afford for it to fail because if not, who cares? They dominate the online advertising business; Glass is an attempt to get more computers in more places so they can serve up ever more ads (or at least collect more data).

The Foleo was the wrong device because it solved a problem no one had and in a rather cumbersome, expensive manner. The trick in this game is to solve problems no one knows they have. Does Glass do that? Not for me, and I’d venture not for enough people on a daily basis.

It’s probably unfair for me to judge a product I’ve never seen in person so harshly, but I’d like to air this grievance now. If I’m wrong and we all wear some form of computer visor in the future, I’ll look back on this and have a laugh. But, come on, no one needs a Foleo for their face.

  1. I can only imagine what it must be like entering a password by voice. “Underscore, two, uppercase double-u, ummm, number sign?” ↩︎