Floating Google Glass Stores? Unlikely. Instead, Follow the Patent.

Since October 25, when CNET reporter  first broke the story, the intertubes have been blowing up about the huge, mysterious barges that Google is apparently building in San Francisco, California and Portland, Maine.  (Will they find one orbiting Jupiter next?) This original story concluded that the San Francisco structure was most likely a “a sea-faring data center.”

Almost exclusively, however, subsequent news reports–which have been spread far and wide by now on the Drudge Report, Twitter and elsewhere–have trumpeted a competing rumor that the barges are intended to be “floating stores” or “promotional centers” for the impending commercial launch of Glass, Google’s much-anticipated digital headset.

This explanation was apparently first given by KPIX 5, one of San Francisco’s local news teams. KPIX, in turn, cited “sources close to the project,” because “virtually no one want[ed] to talk about it for the record.”  In the days since, the KPIX story has caught much more attention than the data center explanation.  Even CNET has since spoken to an “anonymous tipster” who “confirmed” the floating store plans.

It’s easy to see why this idea took hold. Google has done a masterful job over the past year in building mystery and intrigue over, and desire for, the Glass device. (Have I mentioned I’d like an invite?)  Apple has perfected the idea of the brand-centered electronics store. So why not expect Google to one-up Apple with an enormous and mysterious mega-store on the sea?

The problem is that it just doesn’t make any sense.  I mean, look at the thing–does it look like a store to you?  Where would people fit inside that huge metallic latticework?  And who would expect hundreds of thousands of customers to line up on the docks to board it?  The traffic bottleneck would drive the authorities bonkers, especially because all the news reports agree that Google hasn’t cleared that idea with any authorities.

An October 27 follow-up article on CNET expounded on these problems:

To have a store, said Joel Egan, the principal at Cargotecture, you’d need big open spaces, and a building made from the “little cubbies” that are inside shipping containers doesn’t seem practical. Plus, Egan said, there would need to be lots of exits, something that doesn’t appear to the case on the structure in San Francisco Bay, or the one in Maine. “I would say no, it doesn’t [look appropriate for a store],” Egan said. “It would be a lame store. That doesn’t sound right.”

Instead, the far more likely explanation is the one CNET originally gave: a floating data center. Its October 27 article quoted an engineer who worked on exactly such a project for Google, and recognized the structure being built. The best piece of evidence?  Google already has a patent, issued on 2009, for exactly that–a “water-based data center” cooled by ocean water that floats on the sea.

As CNET noted, such data centers could potentially be based in international waters, beyond the jurisdiction of national governments. But even as a practical matter, the centers offer numerous logistical advantages.  As Google explained in the introduction to its patent:

Public use of the internet continues to grow … The internet backbone also needs to grow to support the additional demand from all these new users and new services. Such growth is expensive, however, because backbone routers are huge, complex machines, and running of cross-country fibers costs very much money. In addition, cross-country communication can introduce latency to communications — both because of increased distances, and because of the increased chance of losing and retransmitting packets that are sent through many routers and through long distances.

Thus, it can be beneficial to distribute computing power closer to users. As such, data centers may be moved closer to users….  Also, transient needs for computing power may arise in a particular area. For example, a military presence may be needed in an area, a natural disaster may bring a need for computing or telecommunication presence in an area until the natural infrastructure can be repaired or rebuilt, and certain events may draw thousands of people who may put a load on the local computing infrastructure. Often, such transient events occur near water, such as a river or an ocean. However, it can be expensive to build and locate data centers, and it is not always easy to find access to necessary (and inexpensive) electrical power, high-bandwidth data connections, and cooling water for such data centers.

Sounds a whole lot more plausible to me than a floating store for high-end digital gadgets.  Sorry, fellow Glassophiles.