Google lacks Humanity

One classic Star Trek episode asks: "Is there in truth no beauty?" For most people, the answer is no, and that's something Google had better come to understand as it releases more consumer products. Successful brands and products are all about humanity, about assigning human attributes to them, about making people feel good. Most people make purchase decisions -- even seemingly intellectual ones -- for emotional reasons.

Since Wednesday, I've been using Google's Nexus One, which could replace the Nokia N900. Nexus One is simply the best smartphone I have ever used, yet I struggle to want to keep it. There is something missing about the device. My initial excitement about Nexus One ended with the unboxing. I looked at the device and went, "Huh?" Nexus One looks so drab, so utilitarian. I searched the box for a "Designed by Dell" logo. For years, drab defined Dell industrial design, and that's exactly how I felt when first looking at the Google phone: Designed by Dell. That's no compliment.

I like what Nexus One does for me, but I don't love the device. In June 2007, I described the original iPhone as "life changing." The way iPhone responded to touch, to movement made it highly personal. There was something magical about how iPhone's screen responded to facial proximity. The device knew when not to get in the way and cause unwanted touchscreen actions or phone calls. Nexus One has many of the same features, but there's something human missing behind them.

Yesterday's Boy Genius Report blog post "Google Android Personal Thoughts" crystalized what are my problems with Nexus One:

Part of my main issue with Android, and this applies slightly less to HTC Sense UI handsets, is that there's practically no human emotion with Google when it comes to technology. Everything is statistical and analytical. While you could argue that being this way is way superior to 'feeling' and 'emotion' -- it might be 95 percent of the time -- you still will almost always lose that charm and that amazing feeling of connecting to something. People would die for their iPhones, people would die for their BlackBerries -- and they feel like their lives are in there.

People feel connected to their BlackBerries. Some sleep with them next to their pillow. No one gives a crap about their Android phone, there's zero emotional attachment. The closest example would be Palm's WebOS. A great concept, besides Apple's iPhone OS, it's the most polished, the most friendly, and the most human. Do you see that?

As I write, that one BGR post has more than 1,000 comments. Now how human is that? But how inhuman is Google? The drab Google search page is example enough. It's like a potentially beautiful home beret of decorations or furniture. The home is sterile, lifeless, inhuman.

Perhaps because of its origins Google's inhumanity was unavoidable for the past but it can't be for the future -- not if the information company aspires to be more than a utility. For Google, search is about math, but the utility wasn't always that way. Yahoo's search business started in the late 1990s with people. Yahoo used people to make decisions about search and what to prioritize. They may not have all been right decisions, but at least there was humanity behind them.

The Problem starts with Search

Like Google search, there is no humanity in electricity. But there is personality to the devices connecting to electrical current. People assign human attributes to inanimate objects all the time (see IKEA video). No device is more personal than the cell phone. BBC's March 2006 story "Handsets get taken to the grave" explains just how personal:

More people than ever are asking to be buried or cremated with their mobile phones when they die, say researchers. The trend, which began in South Africa, has now spread to a number of countries, including Ireland, Australia, Ghana, and the US...one service in South Africa will put a number of batteries in the coffin just in case the dead person wakes up much later and finds their own battery has run out.

I say: If grandma calls from the afterlife, don't answer!

People want to feel good about their cell phones, to add humanity to them. One feature I like about Android 2.1 -- and it's now available for iPhone 3.x: Syncing of Facebook friends to the phone's address book. But the feature is impersonal in a really rude way. There is no option (at least I can find) to sync the data back to Google Contacts. Such syncing would be personal and useful. Apple's pushing of apps in iPhone marketing is as much about humanity as selling more smartphones. The applications allow people to personalize the phones, for which they feel more attached to them.

Google corporate culture needs more Booth and less Bones. Fox TV series "Bones" works because of the interaction between the emotional, human qualities of FBI agent Seeley Booth and the dryly intellectual, emotionless qualities of Dr. Temperance "Bones" Brennan. The same could be said about classic Trek, and interaction between Captain James T. Kirk and vulcan science officer Spock.

More Personality Required

Attention to detail is one way Apple makes products endearing, adds personality to them. For example, the pivot-arm iMac G4 had under the base a round metal plate to access memory. Rather than the typical tiny screws, Apple used spring-loaded, attached screws that stayed on the plate when removed. This kind of attention to detail matters to people and makes them feel good about the product, which is what adding personality is all about. By the way, Apple marketing humanized iMac G4, too (see second video).

Google doesn't have to reinvent its products to make them more human, to generate good feeling about them. Long ago, IBM added a touch of humanity to its ThinkPad notebook line with dashes of red against the black/gray casing and the tri-color company logo. If Google wants to gain more customers in the increasingly crowded space of connected consumer products, it's going to need more heart than head.

As one customer, I'm undecided about whether to keep to the Nexus One or the Nokia N900. Functionally, Nexus One is the superior device. By the specs, Google's so-called "superphone" is a geek dream machine. Plus, there are more than 10,000 Android applications, while startling few for the N900's Maemo 5 operating system. But N900 is more endearing to me, more personal somehow in a subliminal way because Nokia's marketing is so personal. It's human.

Google's lacking humanity is perhaps best epitomized by the impersonal customer support for Nexus One -- and the complaints about it. People feel good about going to Apple Store or any wireless carrier outlet and interacting with human beings. They feel angry when dealing with impersonal support forums. Which device do you think is more likely to be returned? The one with impersonal support or the one where there are real people?

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