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?
Scoble: 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!
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?
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.
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.
People 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.