Google (GOOG) made a big publicity splash with its Glass product. People would walk around with a head-mounted computer that could run apps without having to lift a smartphone or tablet to their eyes -- a cyborg-lite.
But even though some industrial and professional uses still look bright, the mass market appeal has tarnished. Expense and some fundamental issues like a $1,500 price tag have made a mass market future dimmer. Now some early believers are losing faith.
Although not a statistical sample, Reuters contacted 16 developers that had been working on consumer applications for the device. Of them, nine had dropped their consumer projects or put them on hold "because of the lack of customers or limitations of the device." Another three switched to business-oriented software. Even Twitter has reportedly ended its Glass efforts.
Neither Twitter nor Google replied to questions in time for publication.
Software developers will invest time in developing applications for new platforms if they think the resulting devices will ultimately become popular. They all remember the commercial explosion that the Apple (AAPL) iPhone became. Even though the vast majority of the billions Apple has paid out has been concentrated among a tiny portion of third-party developers, developers know that the only possibility of hitting it big is participating.
Glass first became available to developers in 2012, when an estimated 10,000 units were sold. Then in April 2013 Google Glass became available to a second group, including more developers, people in media, and hardcore tech lovers. The general public was able to purchase the product starting in May 2013. Google's partnerships and plans, including a deal with eyewear manufacturer Luxottica, indicated a strong interest in a mass market.
But a $1,500 price tag is steep, which would make wide consumer appeal difficult to obtain. Furthermore, some of the design features would potentially be off-putting.
Directing the device requires talking to it, which would make many consumers feel uncomfortable. The red light that goes on when a user records video has led to some negative reactions from crowds, including a fight in a San Francisco bar. Some movie theaters have banned the device. Each inconvenience or problem becomes another hurdle for consumer adoption, making earlier third-party forecasts that Google would sell millions of units seem more than optimistic.
Some key employees on the Glass project have left Google, according to Reuters. A funding consortium for Glass software, which involved VC firms Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Andreessen Horowitz, quietly deleted its website.
To date, Google has refused to publicly state how many Glass units it has sold. Used units can already be found on eBay for as little as half the original price. If the total number sold remains relatively low, smaller developers must reconsider whether the potential market is worth the resources necessary to court it. That could result in a vicious circle, with fewer consumers interested in the platform because it lacks more choices in apps, and developers creating and maintaining fewer apps because they don't see the consumer business.