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What Google Glass Teaches us about Good Devices and Apps

May 21, 2014 Office 365 Dennis Junk

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It may be too soon to call, but it looks like Google Glass is shaping up to be an epic face plant for the tech giant. Isabelle Olsson, one of Google’s designers, told Computerworld, “we created Glass so you can interact with the virtual world without distracting you from the real world. We don’t want technology to get in the way.” But as reviewer Will Oremus writes in Slate, even though the content you can access with the device, like information about the neighborhood you’re walking in, is interesting,

“Yet as I gazed upward and to my right, upward and to my right, to read a sentence or two at a time on the tiny screen, I found myself wishing that I could just read the article on my smartphone’s Field Trip app instead. I was no less distracted reading it on Glass, but the process was slower and less comfortable and I looked twice as silly.”

Devices shrinking and moving from your home to your pocket, and now right in front of your face, seems like a natural enough progression of the technology. Google Glass would be the ultimate multitasking tool—except that multitasking isn’t real; it’s a myth. The only tasks people can perform simultaneously are the simplest ones. If you try to do two or more complicated things at once, you end up simplifying them. In other words, whenever you’re multitasking, you suck at whatever you’re doing. That’s why texting and driving is so dangerous. 

Innovating for the Internet of Things 

While graphics and text brought right to your eyes may at first sound like the ultimate in convenience, there is a fine line, as Olsson acknowledges, between putting information within reach and letting technology get in the way. How tech innovators address the challenge of striking a balance between easy access and distraction will be increasingly important in determining which companies succeed in creating devices that become integrated into our lives. 

And this applies to all sorts of devices. A recent Pew survey assessed the opinions of tech experts regarding the so-called Internet of Things, the move toward more and more coordinated devices that are either wearable or embedded in our other machines. We already have computers in our cars. Soon those may be linked up to our home computers—and to our lights and refrigerators. The experts in the survey see lots of potential benefits. Medical devices could help with treatments. Wearables could help businesses with efficiency measures. But quite a few experts express concern about threats to security and privacy—and also about the increasing complexity of keeping up with this profusion of new devices.

“That complexity could also leave many people behind,” writes Klint Finley in Wired. As more and more of our everyday routines are taken over by computing, life is going to get a lot more complicated for people who lack the resources or the desire to plug themselves into the matrix. “What happens when you need a particular device to pay for items at your local convenience story?” Finley asks.    

Writing about smartwatches, tech reviewer David Pogue points out the important question designers sometimes forget to ask. "The biggest problem, though, is that these first smartwatches don't know what they want to be. We know that putting a computer on your wrist is possible—but nobody's convincingly answered the question, 'Why should I?'” Watches are largely about fashion, Pogue points out, and you have to keep in mind that most people who might buy a smartwatch already have smartphones in their pockets. Before these devices become popular then we'll have to find a particular use for them in the context both of our fashion decisions and of our other devices. 

The Key to Buying Apps and Devices that Improve Your Life or Your Business 

The trick for tech designers is going to be creating devices, not that have amazing capabilities, but that fit seamlessly into our lives. And this is an important principle for consumers to keep in mind too, both individuals and businesses. When you have a choice to buy a device or an app, you have to consider how it will fit within the larger context of your existing computing habits. And you have to ask whether the new product will make your life easier or add another layer of complication. 

Derrick Wlodarz discovered this principle at play in the way different cloud platforms operate in businesses. A Google Apps Certified Trainer and Certified Deployment Specialist, Wlodarz transitioned his own company from Google Apps, which they’d been using for almost four years, onto Microsoft’s Office 365. In an article for BetaNews about what he learned from the experiment, Wlodarz writes, “The battle between Microsoft and Google goes a lot further than who has bigger inboxes, more mobile apps, or whatever new whizbang feature can generate easy buzz. I’ve carefully learned that this is more-so a battle of the ecosystems at this point. Who’s got the all-encompassing platform…?”

Wlodarz goes on to say that “Google Apps isn’t a bad platform by any means.” However, as is on display with their move into the wearable market with Glass, Google does a lot better with those buzz-generating whizbang features. But “when you view both suites as the sum of their individual parts, as a collective experience, Office 365 takes the upper hand.” 

How technology impacts your everyday experiences in the context of all your other daily habits or work routines is what determines its ultimate value, not how shockingly awesome it seems in the commercials. Does the device or app distract you from what you’re doing or help you concentrate on it, experience it more richly? Does it gum up the operation of your other devices and apps, or work seamlessly with them? Does it make you feel like a multitasking zombie, or a happy and productive human? This subtle shift in focus from flashy features to better overall user experiences is, if I had to guess, probably going to be the underlying theme of the next decade’s most successful innovations. 

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