Writer, interviewer and tech evangelist Robert Scoble was back in Seattle this week, with his ever-present Google Glass, to promote the “Age of Context,” his new book with Shel Israel about the rise of data, sensors, machine learning, wearables and other technologies that are expanding the boundaries of computing and augmenting our experience as humans.

After speaking to a lunchtime crowd at Zillow’s downtown headquarters, he sat down with GeekWire to talk about the book — including his own experience with Google Glass, privacy issues and the “freaky factor” from the growing collection of personal data, the role Google in this new world, the challenges facing his former employer Microsoft, and other topics.

Continue reading for edited excerpts from our conversation.

In the book, you refer to Google Glass as the ‘flagship contextual device’. How has it actually changed your context over the time you’ve been using it?

The Age of ContextScoble: Well, I walk into an airport and it shows me my plane ticket. And the coolest stuff hasn’t even started coming out. It’s the first consumer electronics gadget that knows where I’m aimed, full time, so the sensors are firing as I move my head around. It knows whether I’m looking north, south, west. It’s really interesting data. It’s the first one with an eye sensor, so it knows where I’m aimed and where I’m looking full-time.

It can do lots of fun human-machine interfaces because of that. And we haven’t seen any of that yet, because Google hasn’t opened the API. I think Google is holding the SDKs and the apps, and then all of a sudden the APIs will get freed up … and then it’s off to the races. But right now they’re holding back. They’re really just trying to test out a certain number of things, and they’re being sort of cagey about what it’s really going to do.

What do your wife and kids think of it?

Scoble: My kids don’t care at all. In fact, I get pictures of them with this that I never got with my cell phone. They don’t pose for me. It takes less than 1 second to take a picture. It’s always ready, and it’s always aimed in the right place. So I capture moments with them that I wasn’t capturing before. My wife doesn’t see the utility of it. She doesn’t mind that I wear it. But she’s like, ‘Why would I wear that?’ She doesn’t see enough utility.

Will that change for people like her?

Scoble: Next year. When there’s apps. When Google finally turns on these sensors, that will be when it will be interesting to have that conversation. But is there enough utility to get you to pay $500? I don’t know.

You talk in the book about the “freaky factor” of data and personal privacy. Where is the line now, and how quickly is it moving?

Scoble: It’s different for everyone. The freaky line keeps moving as utility shows up. Everybody has their own freaky line and comes at this world differently.

Wait, do you have a freaky line at this point? 

Scoble: Yeah, I don’t live broadcast when I’m having sex or anything like that. (Laughter.) You know, there’s a line there somewhere!

Thank God. 

Scoble: But my wife wears her Fitbit to bed, so somebody’s getting that data! God knows. And that’s a little over the freaky line for a lot of people. Soon we’re going to have Microsoft Kinects in our bedrooms so we can play video games, but those sensors are going to be watching us full time.

How much trust do you have in big companies now, and how has that changed over the past three months?

scoblepullScoble: I’d rather deal with a big company, because at least I can sue them, and see them, and know what they’re doing. Google, for instance, shows you everything they’ve collected on you, with a clearly written privacy policy. They tell you what they’re doing with it. I’m not scared by that.

What’s really going on is, on your iPhone, you have 200 apps, and they’re all collecting a little data on you. Twitter knows a certain thing, Foursquare knows something else, my Fitbit app knows something else, my Waze app knows something else. What’s happening with all that small company data, and where is it all going to get snapped together, and fused together in a future system? I don’t know, but I don’t worry about it too much, because any company that does something nasty is going to pay a price.

[ReviewIn ‘Age of Context,’ Scoble and Israel focus on the possibilities of technology]

How much of a head start does Google have here?

Scoble: A lot, because they know so much. I think about companies in terms of how much they know about me. Do they have my credit card? Do they have my location? Do they know my Facebook likes? Am I gifting them any information?

Google knows a lot. They know all my searches, all my emails, all my calendar items, my location, a lot of my social data, like on Google Plus. They know a lot. And I’m actually changing my behavior to have better information in my Glass all day long. I’m putting better addresses on my Google Calendar. I didn’t used to put any addresses. Now, I realize, if I put an address in there, it serves me, it gives me better data. It tells me more about the traffic on the way to the next meeting, and stuff like that.

Is it presumed at this point that Google will be the ‘operating system’ of this contextual world?

Scoble: One of them. Apple knows a lot of data. Facebook knows a lot of data. Amazon knows a lot of data. Microsoft used to, and still does with some people, but in the newer world, Microsoft knows less and less about me. Xbox still knows a lot about people who play games. But those are the big five, I guess.

scoble2People may forget that you worked at Microsoft. I was thinking on the drive over here about the front-page story I wrote about you and all the “renegade” bloggers at Microsoft a decade ago. So who should be the next Microsoft CEO?

Scoble: Oh, jeez. Wrong question. First you have to figure out how to restructure Microsoft so one person can run Microsoft. Microsoft is what, almost 20 billion-dollar businesses? Most of them are enterprise. Dynamics, SQL Server, Exchange, Sharepoint, and on and on. I can’t name them all — in fact, most Microsoft executives can’t name them all, I’ve learned.

That’s the problem. If you’re one person running that company — even if you’re an extraordinary person — how much time are you going to be able to focus on any one of those businesses, and really think about the future, and think about how to change any one of those businesses? I think it’s over the head of anybody. There’s nobody alive that can do that much.

Does that presume that the company needs to be broken up?

Scoble: Yes! Everybody tells me, “We’re stuck.” They’ve become hardened. I don’t know. There’s smarter people than me. But you cannot have any one guy running 18 billion-dollar businesses. It just doesn’t make sense to me. I’ve met some extraordinary leaders in my time. They struggle with running one billion-dollar business.

It’s funny, because I’ve had more conversations about Surface Pro and Nokia phones and Microsoft up here in the past two days than I ever have in San Francisco.

We’re in a bubble up here.

Scoble: Yes! This is a fucking corporate town. (Laughter.) And it’s a Microsoft town. People are still protective of Microsoft, because their neighbors all work at Microsoft, and they don’t want the economy to be whacked. It’s a big challenge, because Microsoft right now is making profits by the boatload still, and it seems like a healthy company on that level, but the insiders know it’s not healthy. They’re at 4 percent market share for mobile.

What’s the one message that you would want someone to walk away with from this book?

Scoble: Change is coming, and it’s freaky. And you’re going to use it, and love it.

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  • anon

    Like silicon valley is any less of a bubble …

    • Scobleizer

      Most of the interviews I did were actually outside of Silicon Valley. In fact, the coolest new startup, Estimote, was developed in Europe. This isn’t a Silicon Valley-only thing.

  • Guest

    Isn’t this guy’s fifteen minutes of fame over yet?

    • Scobleizer

      Fame is fleeting. What isn’t? If the product you do is appreciated by other people. So far our book has more than 100 five-star reviews on Amazon at so I have a feeling you will be seeing me a lot more over the next few years.

    • Clay Ferguson

      Robert Scobel, has been a well-known name in Technology for years. For example Rackspace is his company, and it’s the best hosting company by far. I use it myself.

      • Guest

        Rackspace isn’t “his” company.

  • JimmyFal

    Scobleizer, what do you think of Googles policy of opting people in to Google Chrome during Adobe Flash installations etc.? Do you think that’s ethical seeing as the boxes to change your home page and your default browser are already checked? Google knows darn well that most average users (outside of Silicon Valley :) )don’t even look at the check boxes. Some would call those users stupid, I just call them average users that don’t know any better. I would say 90% of my every day average joe customers that have Chrome on their computer did not intend for it to be there, and did not ask for it knowingly. Shouldn’t those boxes be left unchecked so the consumer can choose to install it? Do you think that’s sneaky? Does it make you want to read like every single one of Googles privacy policies? I think it’s a fowl practice, and I know Microsoft also does it here and there with Skype installations.

  • Christopher Budd

    I have to say, until someone brings actual fashion design to bear, wearable computing is going to be a niche market. The current offerings just look ugly and goofy.

    In other words, it’s likely going to take Apple to put the devs in service of the designers rather than vice versa and come up with something that’s stylish as well as functional.

    One of the ways I knew that the iPad had “made it” was when I saw Michael Kors designed iPad covers for sale. Apple had made the iPad appealing enough that it was additive to someone’s style rather than detractive and so was attractive for Kors’ company to start trying to capitalize on it.

    When you look at Google Glass or “smartwatches” (the latest attempts or those in the past like the Microsoft attempts in the 90s and 00s) they have the style and sexiness of digital watches in the early 80s. No matter who you are, you look worse for wearing them.

    It’s not an easy problem to solve. Swatch tried and while their stuff was better than most, it was still pretty clunky and not stylish (

  • Medicalquack

    I like technology and used to write and I have a real appreciation for the zest and where it can improve life, but I also look at the other side. In healthcare I can certainly see Google Glass being an asset and did a post on an anesthesiologist using them. Good stuff, but we have “junk” out there too and that makes me nuts along with the profiteering on data selling which is an epidemic as I call it now as data gets used out of context for profit and people get hurt. Once we ring in that side then we can made progress. Mundie just said a short while ago that
    “Personally I would make it a felony”- the violation of data usage policies, retweeted on Twitter.

    If the “good” is the goal for everyone and not snaking around creating math models for profit only, we will win. Right now you have subsidiary companies of insurers selling medical record data that 4 years ago they said they would “donate” to the FDA for research to find out what drugs are performing best, side effects and so on, which is good stuff, but now the huge tiers of subsidiaries of insurers figured they could make a buck instead of “doing the right thing” so that’s what bugs me, not the technology for the good.

    Have you looked at the truckloads of subsidiary companies insurers created, bought on so on…breathtaking..

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