This was a particularly bad week for Google. First came the news that the EU is planning (a non-binding) vote that Google should be split up, demanding that the company spin out its search business (which has 90% of the market in Europe versus about 70% in the U.S.). As the FT wrote, Google is under fire “on two fronts in Europe on Wednesday as privacy watchdogs told it to apply the “right to be forgotten” globally and German ministers pushed for laws to make its search engine a “neutral platform.” As the FT further notes, the EU vote is “one part of a multi-dimensional assault on Google’s business practices in Europe, from antitrust investigations to reform to constraining its freedom to handle private data and copyrighted material.
On a second front, more than one usually Google-friendly outlet decided to write their obits for Google Glass. From mainstream to specialist publications, the conclusion seems to be that Glass has failed and the world needs to move on. As Wired wrote:
Did you know that Google Glass still exists?
Yes, the gadget that launched a thousand think pieces hasn’t disappeared, though the absence of hand-wringing about, say, Glass’ privacy implications suggests a worse fate than bad publicity. No one is going to worry about a product if no one is wearing it.
To be fair, we the media are still paying a certain kind of attention to Glass, much as The National Enquirer pays attention to aging celebrities who may not be long for this world. A recent Reuters piece catalogs the many ways developers are defecting from Glass. To which we say: stick a fork in Glass already, Google. It’s done.
The MIT Tech Review, along with publications, blamed Google for Glass’ failure:
A lot of this is Google’s fault. Rather than spending years developing Glass in secret, Google trotted it out as an early “beta” product that was somewhat functional but finicky and literally in your face. It hoped that software developers would come up with killer applications and that the people wearing it would act as evangelists. Presumably, this has led to some priceless insights for the next version—Google’s online Glass forum brims with questions and feature requests from early users. But it has also caused a social backlash. Seeing a computer on your face makes some people, for various reasons, extremely annoyed. The “explorers” have become widely known as “glassholes.”
So what do these developments mean for Google, a company that impacts the lives of almost everyone in the Western world today? I’ll start with the second problem first and conclude that Glass’ failure is not a major problem for Google. In fact, it may even have been a strategic success, since I think Glass was launched early and in pretty much prototype form so that Goggle could run a giant focus group. I bought a Glass unit for a friend in Europe early on, and we have been chatting about what is good and bad about the technology for about a year. There is no question in my mind that something like Glass will revolutionize human-computer interaction much as the iPhone did. It’s inevitable. The “style” and battery life issues can be worked out, and Google or someone else will solve the more challenging interface issue in time. Indeed, as the Tech Review piece also noted:
… despite Google’s missteps, the technology isn’t going away. The idea that Glass represents—allowing you to ingest digital information at a glance—has appealed for decades to die-hards like Thad Starner, a Glass technical lead who has been making and wearing these kinds of gadgets since 1993. Researchers are going to keep plugging away until we get to a point where the technology blends into the glasses themselves, rather than sitting so obviously atop them.
They are right. New display technologies will embed the screens into the lenses, for example, and new interfaces to control wearable computers will emerge as Google, but also Apple, move rapidly into this new kind of very personal technology. So I don’t think Glass failed at all. I think it was a test launch, and I have no doubt Google got most of what it needed from its interesting social experiment. The European issue, though, it another matter altogether.
The EU battle against Google is both a fundamental challenge to Google’s business strategy and model and serious debate about personal privacy. This debate touches the very essence of what Google is and how this company has changed the nature of personal information and the concept of privacy, a concept some people now argue no longer exists. Americans may be willing to say goodbye to data privacy with an “accept” on a screen and a shrug of their shoulders, but Europeans are not. While at the governmental there is certainly more than a bit of protectionism at play here (would the reaction be the same if Google were “Le Google”? I doubt it…), but that is not the issue at the individual level in Europe. I have spoken to several friends across Europe lately about this topic, and all of them are genuinely concerned about privacy and individual information rights in a much stronger and visceral way than the typical Americans I know. I find this genuinely ironic, since in the U.S. Europe is often caricatured incorrectly as a “socialist” paradise where common good trumps individual liberty. One would think the U.S. would be up in arms about one company controlling all the personal information of our lives, and yet we are not. Apparently, it’s the Europeans who are going to have to wage this war for us (at least for now), so it will be interesting to see how this fight turns out.
Of course, both issues are ultimately related. Part of the perceived problem with Glass on both sides of the Atlantic was privacy and the possibilty of being “broadcast” without knowledge or consent, and perhaps this idea struck a different chord to many Europeans, who may not be as immersed in the US.’s reality-show age, where anyone is a potential public personality. Interestingly, as Eduardo M. Ochoa (President of California State University — Monterey Bay) noted in a reply to an earlier version of this post: “There is no paradox about socialists opposing Google on this: if Google was a government agency, they wouldn’t mind.” His point about public versus private collection of information is a valid one. In the U.S. the greater outcry so far has been against the former, while in Europe it seems to be more against the latter. Perhaps it’s not Google, per se, that has raised such an alarm and any corporation would have caused the same reaction, a phenomenon which, if true, suggests that reactions in Europe and the U.S. are consistent with the two populations’ general distrust levels of the private and public sectors, respectively.
My prediction, when all is said and done? Google will have to back off and grudgingly accept the many restrictions that Europe will demand. They will do so not just because they want market access. They will do so because they want this fight settled before other regions decide to join to EU bandwagon. All of which means that for the moment, it’s Europe that is pushing the cause of privacy. While the typical American may not be paying too much attention to this fight, the outcome of the EU-Google battle is one U.S. regulators will be watching closely.