Google Gazes Into the Looking Glass

A while back we started hearing rumors about some kind of secret project Google was working on involving eyeglasses — smart eyeglasses.

You’d wear them like a normal pair of specs, but they’d somehow be connected to the Web, possibly through the Android phone in your pocket. And the lenses would display all kinds of information — text and images relating to whatever it is you’re looking at. So if you were standing on a sidewalk downtown, for instance, your vision would be overlayed with info about shops, restaurants, transportation, directions to where you’re going, any kind of info you’d otherwise have to find out by messing around with your phone.

Smartphone apps that do that already exist, and the concept is called “augmented reality.” But according to the rumors, Google was going to put AR right in your face with a pair of glasses.

It was definitely an intriguing idea. People started calling it “Terminator vision,” as in the Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. When the films would cut to the robot’s point of view, you’d see it scan the environment and analyze everything about every object in the frame. So yeah, that would be kind of cool.

And it turns out the dream is real — Google has confirmed it’s working on such a product, and the project is called “Google Glass.” It’s posted a video showing what it hopes to achieve with Glass, and it has some top brains in electrical engineering and computer science working on it in Google X Labs, the company’s own personal Area 51.

But if the first publicly available Google glasses look anything like the early-stage models the company just showed off, then wearing them might require some aesthetic courage. They’d make quite a fashion statement, to put it nicely. When rumors were first circulating, there seemed to be a presumption that they’d look more or less like actual glasses or sunglasses — no stranger than a pair of Oakley Thumps, at most.

The actual product, at least in this early stage of development, looks a little more like something belonging to that Jordy guy on “Star Trek TNG.” Or maybe that invention from “The Jerk” that made everyone’s eyes go crossed.

If Google keeps at it, perhaps years from now the product will look a little more like an inconspicuous pair of eyeglasses. Or maybe a few brave souls will pave the way for everyone else, hang these ridiculous-looking things on their foreheads with true geek pride, and one day make it halfway acceptable to be seen leaving the house wearing a pair.

Listen to the podcast (14:18 minutes).

Against the Dying of the Light

When Research In Motion CEO Thorsten Heins was first given the job a couple of months ago, he came out of the gate looking like a ventriloquist dummy. Sure, Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie were no longer the coCEOs, technically speaking, but the way Heins presented himself, it sounded like he’d made up his mind to follow exactly the same path that led investors to demand new leadership in the first place. That perception wasn’t helped by the fact that both of the former chief executives had retained powerful positions on RIM’s board.

But apparently 10 weeks in the trenches have left Heins a changed man. He spoke up recently to present RIM’s most recent quarterly earnings report, and just like the last quarter and the quarter before that, it was gruesome: revenue down 25 percent from a year ago; phone shipments down 21 percent from just last quarter, and a net loss of $125 million. The company doesn’t even want to think about giving specific guidance figures in the quarters ahead, but it told investors to expect the pain to linger through fiscal 2013.

It was clear that Heins couldn’t follow up a report like that with chitchat about staying the course and how great BlackBerry 10 is going to be when it finally rounds the corner. That kind of performance requires a blood sacrifice. It came in the form of some very high-level departures from RIM: Its CTO and COO headed out the door, and even Jim Balsillie stepped down from the board.

That wasn’t all, though. Heins even hinted at drastic changes in strategy, leaving almost no possibility off the table. Big partnerships, outsourcing hardware manufacturing, licensing its software, even an all-out sale of the company — all are potentially in play.

It’s a huge change of attitude from a guy who less than a quarter of a year ago told the world that no major changes were necessary for RIM. Now his point of view seems to be a little more in line with the reality most outsiders see, but it’s also raised concern that he may have piled it on too thick this time around. Investors want change, but telling everyone that the future of the company is so up in the air could make RIM smell unpredictable, and not in a good way. RIM employees certainly wanted to hear a plan for survival, but it can’t be very encouraging to find out that the CEO is seriously considering selling.

But on the whole, investors seemed to like what they heard. Maybe they were refreshed by a CEO who’ll say what so many have been thinking for so long, or maybe they were actually excited that their shares might be acquisition targets soon. Whatever it was, RIM’s stock perked up nearly 10 percent after Heins spoke.

That bit of good news was short-lived, though. Just a couple of days later, a Dutch semiconductor company, NXP, targeted RIM in a patent infringement lawsuit. It names six patents for technologies relating to data transmission, GPS and circuit design. RIM shares drooped nearly 10 percent on that news. The timing couldn’t have been worse for RIM, and maybe that was the point. The company just revealed how starving and desperate for survival it is — who better to squeeze for a fast cash settlement?

The Lawsuit and Layoff Method to Recovery

Yahoo is another struggling company with a new guy in charge — Scott Thompson, former president of PayPal. Like RIM’s Thorsten Heins, he was tapped to take the CEO position of a once-dominant company that’s begun to grow alarmingly frail in the face of stronger competitors. And like RIM, Yahoo is also at the point at which even some of the company’s highest-profile personalities are beginning to give up their director positions. Earlier this year, cofounder Jerry Yang left Yahoo’s board.

But Thompson’s strategy for turning Yahoo around is a little different than Heins’. For one thing, Thompson’s decided to poke Facebook with a huge patent lawsuit — right at about the time the social network is busy primping for the big IPO it has coming up. Whether or not any patent violations really exist, critics called the move an unsavory use of patent law as an offensive weapon, and the strategy doesn’t seem to be netting Yahoo much goodwill in its industry. It might not net very much profit, either — Facebook hasn’t shown any signs of rolling over for a fast settlement. Instead, it turned around and bit Yahoo back with a patent suit of its own. The two could be in for a long, expensive mud wrestle.

Then there’s the matter of the layoffs Yahoo just announced — thousands of them. It plans to drop 2,000 employees. That represents about 14 percent of its entire workforce.

Company officials weren’t very chatty about the decision. Thompson did say that Yahoo needs to refocus on its core competency of online advertising. The company has been groping in a dozen different directions for years, so maybe a back-to-basics approach is as good a shot as anything else.

However, there wasn’t much said about details — new visions, new strategies, or anything exciting that Yahoo might be capable of once it gets lighter and leaner. Critics said they see no real plan other than cutting down payroll. Maybe the old “new day is dawning” speech would come off as pretty glib when a big chunk of its workforce is being tossed out the window. But when a company dumps that big a portion of its personnel, it has to do or say something to let the remaining employees know that it just might be worth it to stick around.

Meanwhile, this spring it’ll be raining talent on Yahoo’s biggest competitors. With 2,000 former Yahoos on the market, outfits like Google and Facebook will have an even bigger pool from which to hire.

Miscrunched Numbers

For a growing number of investors, Groupon stock is starting to look a lot like one of the daily coupons the company keeps stuffing in members’ inboxes. It sounded like a great idea when they bought it; now it’s just sitting there and growing less appealing every day.

Groupon had to revise its financial results for the fourth quarter due to an inadequate amount of cash set aside for customer refunds, which made a difference of more than $14 million in revenue. That earned the company a 17 percent drop in stock value, as well as the interest of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

This financial mulligan has once again raised questions that have plagued Groupon ever since it started talking about going public. Questions like, can’t a lot of other companies easily offer essentially the same thing? And, is this business model sustainable?

The answer to question one seems to be yes — lots of companies also offer local daily deals via email.

As for question two, Groupon has had to pull off a delicate balance for years between vendors and buyers, and its rapid growth and now public status may have given it a major tilt.

On the buyer side, Groupon users can sometimes be very spontaneous — once in a while they’ll buy coupons but fail to actually do anything with them before they expire. That’s beneficial to Groupon and the business issuing the coupon. But for the buyer, it’s not a great feeling to know that you’ve thrown your money away, regardless of whose fault it is, and those customers sometimes won’t bother trying again.

Groupon’s early success has also motivated lots of other companies to try out daily deal emails as well, leaving users with mountains of coupon messages that they’ll mostly ignore, whether they’re from Groupon or anyone else.

The vendor side could grow difficult for Groupon as well. When the company tries to sign up new clients — businesses, often small ones, willing to partner with Groupon to offer a daily deal — one of the benefits pitched is that in exchange for offering a huge discount on a select item, a Groupon deal will bring in lots of new customers.

But according to a growing number of retailers and restaurants, what really happens is you get an influx of bargain hunters for a few days, and they buy up whatever it is you offered to discount — nothing more. Those sales are losses, and since those customers were bargain hunters, they won’t come back unless you offer another huge discount on something.

Other Groupon partners claim to get better results than that scenario, if they plan things out carefully enough. But Groupon may need to put in a lot more time and make some significant changes before investors will rest easy knowing that it’s a profit machine with its mind on its money rather than an interesting idea with a short shelf life.

Do I Know You?

In the old days, you used to have to strike up conversations with the people around you in order to get to know them and learn things about them. Whether you were at a park, a bar, a city bus or central booking, strangers were strangers until you chatted them up. And if they didn’t want to talk to you, you’d probably find out very quickly.

Anymore, though, that kind of social interaction is incredibly old-fashioned. Now we have mobile apps like Girls Around Me, an awful little invention from developer i-Free. Girls Around Me scans social networks like Facebook and Foursquare for information that’s been publicly posted on women’s profiles. Then it cross-references that with their geolocations, which are sometimes also made public, and shows the user all kinds of things about the women in his or her general vicinity.

No need to actually talk to her to find out her name and that she’s single, likes golf, and plans to attend Jen’s party this Friday. Just crash Jen’s party and give her a set of monogramed clubs. That’s 21st century romance.

But perhaps Girls Around Me isn’t a very practical tool for actually meeting women. In fact, it’s possibly one of the creepiest applications to ever hit the App Store. Apple banned it, and Foursquare revoked its right to access data.

What Girls Around Me does isn’t illegal. It doesn’t hack into anybody’s account or subvert anyone’s privacy settings; it only gathers publicly available data. Some online privacy advocates have actually called it a wake-up call — if you don’t want to be featured on Girls Around Me or an app just like it, zip up those privacy settings and keep the personal stuff personal.

Of course there’s also concern that it’s a pretty heavy-handed and potentially dangerous wake-up call. The collection of info the app presents could be a dream come true for a stalker or some other brand of sleazeball.

Save for the app’s developers themselves, not many people are speaking up to support Girls Around Me, but there are some who’ve taken issue with the conversation it’s stirred up. It’s an opinion articulated by Marie Connelly, a woman whose information was featured on Girls Around Me — then featured again when John Brownlee at The Cult of Mac wrote about the app and used her photo as an example of what it collects.

Connelly wrote on her own blog that there seems to be a presumption that any woman who makes information about herself public on a social network is either ignorant of privacy controls or too lazy to care. But some people, including some women, Connelly says, aren’t ignorant or lazy — they just don’t see anything wrong with putting some info about their location or their hobbies into the public space.

Sure, apps like this are incredibly creepy and weird, she says, but it shouldn’t be frowned upon when someone makes an informed decision to live part of her digital life in public.

It’s not exactly comforting to know that a scuzzy little app is scooping it all up and tossing it to strangers in this context, but don’t assume that every bit of info it grabs is a dirty little secret from someone who doesn’t know any better than to keep it covered up.

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