I am not a YouTube star,” bubbles a cute brunette sporting the space age-like head mounted Google Glass glasses. “I am a Google+ girl!”
We are sitting in the Googleplex, the cathedral of technology. Before me rules one supremely confident Google VP circled by a clutch of adoring tech bloggers and “influencers.” A moment ago we walked up the digital equivalent of the yellow brick road, a staircase with our names rotating in multi-color glory.
This happened a few weeks ago. Bloggers, techies, minor celebrities and influencers had been invited to a social-media mad, tech version of what felt like a 60’s Love-In. We all had to sign NDA’s (Non-Disclosure Agreements) swearing we wouldn’t reveal what we were about to experience till August 1.
The Tech Love-In highlighted the colossal differences between Google and Apple. Masterminded by Guy Kawasaki, the brilliant erstwhile Apple evangelist and venture capitalist recently swooped up by Motorola (in turn bought last year by Google for $12.5 billion), this four-hour alcohol fueled affair was sculpted to fan rumors and seed the social media mavens who might boost Google’s late smart phone entry, the Moto X.
Whatever you think about Google, Kawasaki’s marketing experiment is changing the rules of corporate storytelling, branding and the art of buzz.
The Google+ girl sits next to another Glassed Cyborg, celebrated tech blogger, Robert Scoble. Tech love is in the air. The Google VP thanks the influential techies in the room for their unflagging support for Google’s slumbering network. They deserve Google’s thanks. In the past few days, Slate called Google+ a social network dud, while Tech Crunch termed it “Frankenstein’s Monster.”
But inside the Googleplex bubble all is good. Perceptions are contextual, I’m reminded, and its hard to forget the force that is coloring our minds. Here the invited bloggers express how they “love” Google. “It’s fantastic…It’s awesome, ” they gush at the VP. There’s even trash talking. Spits Google girl: “I am on a stinky iPhone.”
The Google VP basks in the glory, exhaling like a studio exec enjoying a fat cigar: “Times are good,” he says. “We do crazy things — self driving cars, and Glass.”
Scoble, the chunky Glassed blogger, chimes in: “I love the trend of automating things. I think that’s cool. I also sense Google is switching from an advertising model to a commerce model.”
He points a finger toward the contraption on his head that makes him resemble a cyborg: “This is giving me a little taste of that.”
The VP grins and opines on Google’s vision for advertising, sounding like a modern version of Mad Man’s Don Draper. “It’s the tax I pay to get the candy. I think we can shed that over time. To one that I want and the service provider wants. I should be delighted every time I get an opportunity.”
Let that vision soak in. Yes, soon we will want Google’s “tax.” We will be delighted with opportunities for discounts — not deluged with advertisements culled from our private search habits.
But just then something strange happens. Someone sounds like a journalist. “Android bites me every once in a while,” Scoble volunteers. “Apple never did.”
The room goes silent. Scoble bravely continues: “There are lots of little examples where Google bites you every once in a while.”
But this is not why we have gathered here, and just like that the Google VP is calmly saying that “things are getting markedly better,” and that our future couldn’t be brighter. We are, “at the beginnings of a contextual OS,” he says, describing the unfolding, ever-present mobile computing universe. “The phone will know we are in a meeting. Know we are shopping.”
Wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a big smile, Kawasaki stands before us with a projector beaming onto the three walls behind him. Next to him sits the classic egg-shaped translucent and blue colored iMac G3, the machine that helped recharge Apple’s resurgence in the late 1990’s, and ushered in a rainbow of color. It’s a metaphor for this hoped for Motorola comeback.
Just as film directors pursue widely different paths to make movies, so do Google and Apple adopt divergent ways to develop and market products. Apple would never invite a gang of tech influencers to see a critical new product three weeks before launch. That’s Kawasaki’s genius, and Google’s remarkable open source style openness. Indeed, one of the bloggers just told me that Apple never returns his calls. In the past year negative articles on Apple have spread like wildfire. Story matters, relationships matter and when bloggers aren’t cultivated that colors the narrative.
Decades ago I saw Steve Jobs present the NeXT Computer in the front row from fifteen feet away. He was a master. Today I’m only ten feet from the Motorola VP introducing the Moto X.
What’s different? Everything.
The Motorola VP opens with Motorola’s colorful new logo, which we’re told is “A lot like Google. It starts with you.” You is code for Corporate Anthropology. Motorola “looked at a ton of user data” the executive continues. “We’ve highly simplified things.”
At that, the VP, says, “OK Google Now, Call Alice,” and we hear a call to his wife, and then with “OK Google Now, Navigate to…” we hear driving directions, and then the question that seriously dates him. “OK Google Now, How tall is Michael Jordan?”
Nobody dares ask the obvious question. Can you customize Moto X to work without flogging Google? Say, “OK, Hal Now”. Or must you walk down the street mumbling, “OK Google Now…” to yourself? And while we’re at it, why the word “Now?” Why not, “O.K. Google Navigate to?”
The walls fill with images of attractive women checking their phones — more anthropology. Motorola learned that we constantly check for texts or the time. So they developed a subtle feature that shows the phone’s time and active notifications without turning on the whole phone, the Active Display.
Apparently we’re also constantly missing out on hot photo ops. Hence, Moto X is faster at readying the phone to snap a photo. Two seconds, not the usual 4 plus. All you need do is a fast “screwdriver” like twist of your wrist (don’t worry, nobody will notice), and Voila it unlocks the camera, and “focuses on the right subject.”
Best of all it’s, “Designed by you.” You can pick color, styling, accents, features, engraving. Motorola owns a plant in Texas: “You order the phone and we build it, and you get it in 4 days.”
The Moto X is an impressive looking and feeling phone, (the curved back and subtle composite materials) and that’s one of the oddest things. The VP didn’t really even hold or focus on the actual phone or a good hour. It was all about voice control, nifty processors, battery-life, cool features.
We just witnessed the antithesis of the Steve Jobs iPod, iPhone and iPad unveilings, which were always about the jewel-like beauty and mastery of form, about sparking our craving to touch and feel and buy.
Jobs didn’t tell audiences how he’d listened or done anthropology or studied “tons of user data.”
He didn’t design from the masses.
He took us places we’d never imagined — shrinking music to a thumb-sized wonder, ditching the keyboard of a cell phone for a screen and rocketing past laptops to the one-dimensional power and simplicity of an iPad.
“O.K. Google Now!” I’m tempted to shout, after Google lets us play with a couple dozen phones and wines and dines us on a pleasant summer evening on the Google campus. “Will Moto X be a hit?”
I’m not sure. How many of us are itching to customize the color of our phone? Then there’s the gaping lack of a retail presence. This is not an easy market to crack. Apple has over 400 of the world’s highest grossing stores, while Samsung has succeeded in large part by spending $4.2 billion a year on advertising — 4 times that of Apple.
Yes, Google owns geeks but selling high-end gear is not automatic (as Blackberry and Microsoft are learning the hard way). And sometimes geeks are too freaky for the mainstream. After Saturday Night Live mocked the frenetic head shakes used to control Google Glass in a hilarious skit, it’s worth asking whether people want to be seen shaking their Moto X wrist to snap quick photos.
Then again, Google has been so absurdly successful in what that Google exec so eloquently dubbed the “tax I pay to get the candy,” that it can blow billions on anything — driverless cars, cyborg glasses, even on getting serious about smartphones six years after the iPhone’s debut.
Google is planning to spend half a billion promoting this phone, and its wallet is already open. Every blogger and influencer in the room has been promised a free unlocked Moto X phone, which will probably soon pull $600 or more on eBay.
Social media is not traditional media. This is my first (and likely last) Google Glass dinner and there’s something weird about hanging with geeks who could be watching Game of Thrones, filming you or doing anything but paying attention to the human three feet from their faces.