From Wired to Weird

I’m a huge hip hop fan.  One of my favorite rhymes of all time came from the dearly departed Notorious B.I.G.:  “Mo Money, Mo Problems”.
Lately, I’ve been thinking that the folks at Google should take some advice from Biggie.
Google is, of course, a fabulously successful business by any metric.  The company invented search as we know it, perfected Web advertising, and made just a little impact on Internet video.  (See:  YouTube)
But here’s something to think about: whenever tech companies earn as much money as Google has earned, they tend to lose their edge and focus.  They set out on flights of fancy to solve the world’s most pressing problems.  Or they throw gobs of cash at wacky, outlandish inventions—kind of like Dr. Emmett Brown, the Mad Scientist from Back To The Future who spent his family fortune building a time machine from a DeLorean.
Google has done its share of both. It spent years and God knows how much money trying to digitize every book ever published.  Can you imagine how many scanners and server farms this required?  The effort got derailed when publishers sued for copyright infringement, and the future of this noble pursuit is unclear.
Two other recent Google innovations indicate that it’s getting a little weird up in Mountain View.

Exhibit #1: Project Glass
This is a photo of Google founder Sergey Brin wearing Google Goggles.  Yes, that’s a real product name.  These specs work in concert with your smartphone.  The lenses are augmented reality screens that follow your eyes and read what you look at.  The goggles display address information, maps, text messages and (someday) advertising—all based on where you are and what you’re viewing.
Breathtaking technology, right?  But who in the world would ever be caught dead wearing them—let alone pay the $1,500 sticker price?
Google says it plans to release these to the public someday soon.  For now, you can download a free app called Goggles. It enables you to snap a photo with your smartphone and use it as the basis for a search.  Cool idea; download the app to explore.

Exhibit #2:  The Q
The Nexus Q is a little ball of love.  It’s said to be the first piece of independently manufactured hardware that Google has ever produced.  What exactly does this gorgeous little device do?  No one really knows for sure.
We do know that it’s a streaming media device—somewhat like Apple TV or a Roku box.  But what it streams—and how it streams—is the topic of much debate.  Will you connect it directly to a TV? It has an HDMI input, so that’s possible if you have a really long cord.  Will it access content through YouTube?  You bet.  Cable channels?  Individual shows?  Who knows?
Despite these questions, Google has been taking pre-orders at $300 per unit.  It recently announced delays to add more features. As soon as it becomes available, I’ll be back with a full review.  But for now, we can only scratch our heads and wonder, what are they thinking?
Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not here to mock Google’s inventive audacity. Well, maybe just a little.
Digital hubris is a real phenomenon, and Google is not alone in this predicament. It happened to Microsoft, who brought us the world’s first operating system and Xbox… but also created the Zune (generally regarded as the worst music device ever built) and BOB, a Windows overlay designed to turn your computer screen into a cartoon-like image.
If you don’t believe me, try a Google search for “biggest tech flops of all time.”
The truth is, we should respect and admire these efforts to push boundaries and break new ground, even when the Googles of the world go slightly off the rails.  Without this kind of bold thinking—and weird thinking—we wouldn’t end up with the vast array of tech gadgets that we love so much.
So here’s to you, Google.  But I still won’t buy those glasses.

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