First Impressions

I’ve been thinking a lot about Google Glass lately.  There are a lot of naysayers, as with any new tech, but I’m really hoping they’re able to pull off a successful launch.  Unfortunately, Google has a long track record of not giving their new releases the support and rapid iteration that’s required at the beginning of the lifecycle for a new product (ex: Google+) and then standing by while they wither on the vine.  So today I’d like to talk about some of the things that need to go into launching a new product and what we can learn from technologies in other industries that should have succeeded but didn’t.

As I’ve written here before, I’ve been looking a lot at electric motorcycles lately.  So when Brammo had an event last weekend to get people to come out and test drive their bikes and provide feedback, I made sure to get off work a little early so I could make it out.  There’s a lot to like and a few areas that need some work[1] but the good mostly outweighs the bad except on one point – antilock breaks are not an option!  For me at least that’s a deal killer.  Especially at the Empulse’s price point of almost $20k.

Not that Brammo is alone in this, Zero (the other big electric bike manufacturer) doesn’t offer it either.  Industry wide, ABS is much less common then it should be.  Part of that is that the motorcycle industry is even more resistant to change then automobile industry.  The Baby Boomers are still the dominant demographic and the big companies seem absolutely determined to continue catering to their desire to recapture their youth by producing an endless stream of retro and faux-retro bikes.  That’s all well and good – I like the looks of a classic cruiser as much as the next guy.  But when it bleeds over into not wanting to include modern technology that would save lives that’s when I start to have a problem with it.

The fact is, riders on bikes with ABS are 37% less likely to die then riders on equivalent bikes without ABS.[2]  Having gone down on the freeway due to my wheels locking up when i had to stop rapidly on slick pavement, it’s not an experience I’m eager to repeat.   These numbers are one of the big reasons why the EU is going to require all new motorcycles to include ABS starting in 2016.[3]     So why the resistance?  Why are so many riders and manufacturer’s so opposed to ABS?

After crawling through seemingly endless blogs and forum posts on the topic, I keep coming back to one thing: the first bikes that included ABS a decade ago did a terrible job.  It was jerky, it was intrusive, and it had a tendency to make you fall over in corners.  In short it made the bike less safe.  Older riders who tried out the new technology back then decided they didn’t like it and haven’t been willing to try it out again since.  As a result, riders refused to buy bikes that included it and manufacturer’s responded by pulling it from most of their US models.  A decade later, even though the tech has advanced to solve all of those problems, people are literally getting  killed  because they’re either unable or unwilling to use what is now a thoroughly tested and reliable technology.[4]

In the tech world we see this sort of thing all the time, albeit with less dramatic results.  Whether it’s a great game that botches its launch and never recovers (i’m thinking of Dungeons and Dragons Online and many others), a new web service that’s fundamentally better then its competition but lacks the refinement at launch to make people switch right away and thus never gains traction (Google+ anyone?) or new gadgets (tablets have been around for years – ever since Palm Pilot – but it took the iPad to make them mainstream); getting that first impression right can make or break not just a single product but entire categories of products.  And botching that launch can set back an entire industry.

Which is why I’m watching Google Glass so closely.

I wear glasses which means I can’t use Google Glass, but I believe it’s critically important that Google get this launch right.   Visual computing has the potential to change everything.  I’m envisioning a world where I’m lane splitting on my motorcycle and the heads-up display on the visor of my helmet warns me that the SUV in my blind spot is about to merge into me.  I want to be able to get real-time traffic alerts and directions, to be able to pull up meeting notes and profile information in a business setting without taking my eyes off the speaker, to be  able to look down the block and see yelp ratings for every business on the strip floating above their signs.  Augmented reality has the potential to be as big a game changer as smart phones or personal computers.  And I’m going to be pissed if Google messes up the launch of Glass and sets the whole field back by years if not decades or longer.

Moral of the story: whether its electric motorcycles, wearable displays, or antilock breaks, first impressions are everything.  Humans are fickle, shallow creatures who rely on first impressions far more then logic or reason would suggest they should.  It’s worth taking a bit more time in development to get the launch right.  If your product really is offering something new, a certain degree of polish is part of your Minimum Viable Product.

[1] The transmission is a bit stiff and a bit jerky in the space between the bottom of the power curve and the regenerative breaking (their equivalent of engine breaking).  It’s also very cramped for a tall person like me.   None of those things are insurmountable though.  All said it’s still a great bike, but I’m not buying one until it has ABS. 

[2] Motorcycles with ABS 37% less likely to be involved in fatal crashes: http://news.consumerreports.org/cars/2010/04/iihs-study-motorcycles-with-antilock-brakes-are-much-safer.html and another story about the study: http://www.manufacturing.net/news/2008/10/antilock-brakes-could-cut-motorcycle-fatalities?menuid=36.  You can find the original study at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21469024

[3] There will be exceptions for very small bikes but any full size motorcycle sold in the EU will have to have ABS starting in 2016.

[4] There are exceptions, one of the big reasons I bought my Triumph Street Triple is that it’s one of the few bikes in its weight class that comes with ABS.  Triumph includes it on all Striples and allows users who are dead set against it to turn it off, which seems sensible to me.  But in the cruiser world there are very few bikes under 1300 cc’s that even have ABS as an option.  It’s more common on sport bikes partly because of the younger demographic, but still nowhere near standard.