Are telcos ready for Google Glasses?

Failing to judge the rate of the smartphone-driven data explosion has hurt telcos in the past and given Google Glasses' potential to redefine consumer behaviour, they will need to stay ahead of the adoption curve.

You would have thought that tobacco manufacturers, people smugglers, recently bailed out Big Bank CEOs and /or polluting oil Companies might be the most disliked companies in Australia. They’re not. Try Googleing ‘Australia’s most hated industry’ and it's the telcos that will catch your eye.

Telstra, Optus, Virgin Mobile and Vodafone Australia all cop plenty of criticism and  the problem is getting worse. Year on year, people like the companies they buy their mobile phone from, less and less, across almost every aspect of the services they receive. 

One factor driving the dissatisfaction has been the exponential growth in smartphone adoption in Australia. In their last report, the TIO (the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman ) said the 2010 – 2011 year was their ‘busiest on record’. They received nearly 200,000 complaints, an increase of 17.8 per cent on the year before. This spike in complaints about mobile services was largely caused by two important factors: Vodafone’s network issues and the increased market share of smartphones,’ summarised the TIO.

Another recent example was the admission by Vodafone Australia’s chief executive Bill Morrow that the carrier was unprepared for the rapid adoption of smartphones and the resultant impact on its network.

In just the last year, Vodafone Australia has publically announced it will spend more than $1 bn upgrading its network. Optus is spending $2bn. Telstra has already spent $4bn. 
As well as beefing up their 3G networks with ‘3G Plus’ recently ( the addition of a new frequency to improve in building coverage ) Telstra and Optus have rolled out LTE / 4G networks. 

So, it looks like the telcos have matched their capacity planning with demand and can now support the smartphones they’re selling. While telcos have now got their head around smartphones, Google Glasses could offer a similar threat to telco’s customer satisfaction.

Just like smartphones changed the way we relate to information the advent of wearable computing could  be another significant step forward in the way we consume and share information.

With their large, engaging, colourful screens smartphones provided an enhanced interface experience for consumers. The user interfaces provided on them are deliberately managed to be (and are often marketed as ) focussed on the ‘human’ aspects of you. This attention to design makes it easy and enjoyable to access the internet tens of times a day, to socialise with friends, entertain yourself or perform work while users are out of the office.  

Enter Google Glasses

‘Project Glass’ is the internet search company’s internal project name for their first attempt to provide wearable computing to the mainstream.  Google Glasses are essentially clear glasses with a ‘heads up’ display (an image projected on to the glasses in front of the user ). The capability allows those who put on a set to experience some aspects of augmented reality. 

Google Glasses are likely to be operated through slight head movements and speech. They’ll be connected to the internet through a wireless link with your Smartphone. The company suggests that their glasses will be available for developers next year and a full public release in 2014. It would be possible to speculate that some of the current Google product releases are contributing components to a broader, Google Glasses based strategy. 

Google Goggles is a Google capability which has been around for a while and offers the ability to search using a picture as the “search term.” Google Now voice recognition in Jellybean ( the latest Android Mobile Device Operating System ) is an impressive way of searching with voice recognition. It returns intelligent results to a widening array of search terms.

Facial recognition capabilities, tied in with social networking on Android Ice Cream Sandwich can be used to automatically post your friends to Facebook when you take a snap of them. And Google Field Trip, released more recently, offers you interesting bits of local information as you ‘explore’ a region.

Together, it’s not hard to imagine that these application components could tie together to form the start of a new app eco system built around Google Glasses.

If the aim of the telcos is to improve customer satisfaction, it might be worth them considering their approach to Google Glasses. One interpretation of the circumstances is that this situation is very similar to the one they faced five years ago with the launch of the iPhone. 

It represents a new technology, which is easy to use and which may, again, change the way people relate to information in the same way the large, icon focussed screen of the iPhone did. If the glasses take off, it could cause a potentially dramatic increasing the amount of data everyone is using.

Failing to judge the rate of the smartphone-driven data explosion hurt the telcos and to avoid a repeat will need them to start thinking about getting ahead of the adoption of these new technologies, rather than trying to retrofit a network to an exponentially growing capacity problem. 

Jacobus Bron is the CEO of telco comparison site Whatphone.com.au.

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