A Sceptic’s View of Google Glass

Posted in Android, Hardware by Dan on July 18th, 2014

Back in 1999, I was one of a group of Computer Science students invited to visit the research labs of a large consumer electronics company. I don’t remember a great deal about the prototype products we were shown but I do clearly remember being told that wearable computing was the next big thing. 15 years later wearable computers are still the next big thing.

This time around the devices have made it beyond the lab with a slew of underwhelming “smart” watches already on sale. In addition, Apple has been rumoured to be preparing its own for years now. Google on the other hand has taken a different approach by creating a new category of product with Google Glass.

It’s been over two years since Glass sky-dived into public view but it remains subject to a pretty exclusive public beta that you have to pay a hefty premium to join ($1500/£1000). Until a few weeks ago Glass headsets could only be purchased in the US. They are now also available in the UK. On Wednesday evening Google held its first European Glass developer meet-up at Skills Matter in London.

Since first hearing about Glass I’ve been deeply sceptical about it. It’s clearly capable of doing a few neat things that could be useful in a few niche areas but it just seems so inessential, it looks thoroughly ridiculous, and the current price tag is not destined to appeal to sensible individuals. However, I’ve often been too dismissive of new technologies in the past, so I was prepared to at least give it a go.

There was a full house at the Skills Matter Exchange including several Glass-adorned Googlers and a surprising number of other people who had presumably been parted from a grand of their own money. Interestingly, almost everybody had opted for the version with the plastic lenses. When the alternative is the bizarre lens-less titanium forehead band with nose perch it is entirely understandable, whether you need vision correction or not. The spectacle facade makes Google Glass look a lot less conspicuously weird. It’s still not a good look though, even without the beyond-parody third-party add-ons.

Google developer advocates Hoi Lam and Timothy Jordan delivered a couple of presentations suggesting how you should approach building apps for Glass (or Glassware as Google likes to call them). One major drawback for those who might be interested in building these apps is that at present there is no direct way for developers to make money from developing Glassware. Presumably that has to change at some point but for now apps can only be distributed free-of-charge (subject to Google’s approval), and in-app advertising is, mercifully, banned.

Following the presentations, those of us who hadn’t experienced Glass firsthand were given the opportunity to try out the headsets. Due to time constraints and the number of people who wanted to have a go, we didn’t get long enough to be able to get a feel for what it would be like to have this thing on your face all day but here are a few things I noted that might be of interest to those who haven’t tried one of the devices yet.

  1. The early promo shots of Glass tended to avoid showing the battery pack that rests behind your right ear and those pictures that did show it made it look awkwardly bulky. In reality this battery is quite thin and the headset is not as heavy as it looks.
  2. As a POV camera, Glass works well. It’s very easy to take snapshots or video (although I didn’t get an opportunity to check the quality of the results on a bigger screen). Unfortunately, according to Scoble, the battery is only good for 45 minutes of video and it will cook your face in the process. If all you care about is POV photography there are probably much better/cheaper options available.
  3. In a room with a lot of background conversation, the voice recognition worked well. The microphone clearly does a good job of isolating the voice of the wearer.
  4. The “screen” was underwhelming, albeit in a poorly-lit environment. The resolution wasn’t great and the focus didn’t feel entirely comfortable. It may well have been possible to adjust the focus but I didn’t have the time to find out.
  5. The user interface doesn’t feel like it would scale well to having a large number of apps installed. At the moment there is a lot of swiping through cards in a linear fashion.
  6. Unsurprisingly, Glass appears to be tightly integrated with Google+.

I was never going to be a person who would consider paying £1000 for one of these devices but having tried it very briefly I’m now certain that I wouldn’t buy one at a lower price either, even if I ignored the way it looks. There is, as yet, no compelling use case for the average person. One of the main features is that you can get your e-mails, SMS messages and other Android notifications beamed directly on to your retina without having to remove your phone from your pocket. I really don’t have any need for that kind of urgency. I’d rather ignore interruptions until I choose to deal with them. That’s not to say that there aren’t people who could find a use for Glass given better battery life and a more attractive price tag, but for most of us it’s a clever solution in search of a problem – the hardware equivalent of Google Wave.


RIM’s PlayBook Push – Repackage An Android App, Get A Free Tablet

Posted in Android, Blackberry, Hardware by Dan on February 3rd, 2012

It’s fair to say that Blackberry maker RIM’s tablet offering, the 7-inch PlayBook, has not been a commercial success. Launched in the UK at a £399 price point last June, by October the 16GB model’s price had been slashed to £249 in the face of underwhelming demand and last week RIM cut the price again – this time to £169.

In the VAT-free US the asking price is even lower, just $199 – exactly the same as Amazon’s Android-powered Kindle Fire. The two devices are both 7-inch tablets with 1Ghz dual-core processors and 1024×600 displays but the PlayBook has twice the internal storage (16GB vs 8GB), twice the RAM (1GB vs 512MB) and both front (3Mp) and rear (5Mp) cameras (the Kindle Fire has neither).  If Amazon struggles to break-even on the Kindle Fire, preferring instead to make its money selling content, then the current selling price of the higher-spec PlayBook must represent a significant loss for RIM.

To counter the growing consensus that it couldn’t give the devices away, RIM has started doing just that. Specifically, the Canadian firm is targeting developers in a last-ditch effort to rescue its ailing tablet platform from the squeeze being applied by Apple’s iPad and the myriad Android pretenders. All attendees at Blackberry’s Devcon in Amsterdam next week will be rewarded with a shiny new PlayBook and yesterday the company announced that it would give a device to every Android developer that repackaged an existing Android app for distribution on Blackberry App World (the PlayBook is capable of running Android apps non-natively). Today that offer was extended to include any developer publishing any kind of app (native, Android or Adobe AIR) on App World before the 13th February.

This industrial scale bribing of developers represents a concerted push to revitalise the PlayBook platform with the upcoming release of version 2.0 of the device’s QNX-based operating system. Increasing the number of tablet apps available on Blackberry App World is a core part of this strategy. For Android developers it’s an opportunity to get hold of what is by most accounts a decent bit of hardware for the minimal effort of repackaging an existing app.

Kindle Fire Reignites Amazon’s Android Offering

Posted in Android, Hardware by Dan on September 28th, 2011

As expected, Amazon today launched the Kindle Fire, its own Android-powered 7-inch tablet (available to pre-order ahead of a November 15th release). At just $199 the device is even more aggressively priced than the $250 mooted by TechCrunch a few weeks ago. It’s clear that Amazon’s strategy is not to make lots of money selling the hardware but to use it to sell more e-books, MP3s, apps, films and other digital content. It’s this that makes it significant for Android developers – if things play out how Amazon intends, we should see a big increase in sales on the Amazon Appstore.

It’s striking how Amazon has completely down-played the Android underpinnings of its new machine. The word “Android” appears only once on the product page and only then as part of the name “Amazon Appstore for Android”. The Kindle Fire doesn’t look much like an Android device either. This is not a Google-endorsed, Honeycomb-powered tablet. In fact, according to TechCrunch, it runs a fork of Froyo (Android 2.2). Inevitably this adds to Android fragmentation concerns. It remains to be seen whether Amazon will release an emulator image to enable developers to test for this environment.

For now the Kindle Fire is disappointingly but unsurprisingly a US-only proposition. A wider launch of the Amazon Appstore could be imminent and it seems reasonable to expect that the Kindle Fire might follow sometime in 2012.

First Details of Amazon Android Tablet Emerge

Posted in Android, Hardware by Dan on September 3rd, 2011

In my previous post, I concluded that Amazon’s Appstore for Android was an underwhelming proposition for developers and would probably remain so, at least until Amazon’s mooted Android tablets surfaced. Details of a Kindle-branded 7″ Android tablet have now started to appear, with M.G. Siegler on TechCrunch claiming to have actually used the device. Based on his report, it seems Amazon intends to diverge further from Google’s template than any major Android device manufacturer has done so far (Mark Murphy ponders what this means for developers).

Perhaps the most significant detail is the rumoured price point. At $250 (~£154) it will be half the price of an iPad. This thing is likely to sell. And when it sells, app sales should follow.

I suspect the device will initially be available in the US only as this is Amazon’s usual strategy when launching new products and services, and the Appstore itself is US-only at present.

Here’s hoping that, to ensure app compatibility, Amazon decides to send free development devices to those loyal Android developers who have been with its Appstore since launch.

Life-Saving Tip for MacMini Owners

Posted in Hardware, Mac by Dan on November 4th, 2006

Just installed a Microsoft wireless keyboard and mouse combo on my Mac Mini. In true Microsoft style you have to reboot to complete the install. What it doesn’t mention is that if you don’t remove the CD-ROM the machine will never boot again. Since, unlike most other home computers, the Mac Mini has no mechanical mechanism for ejecting a CD in emergency situations (short of dismantling the machine with a screwdriver). It looked like I was in a bit of a fix.

Fortunately, I was able to access the web on another machine and discovered this vital piece of information: if you hold down a mouse button while the Mac boots, it will eject the disc in its drive. This may be common knowledge among hard-core Mac people but it was new to me. So my soon-to-be-discarded Logitech mouse was able to come to the rescue and everybody lived happily ever after.