The Debacle of Google Glass

on May 8, 2015

For the last 25 years, I have looked very closely at the adoption cycle of products and I have learned something very important. Seldom does a product, especially a hardware product, find favor quickly with the broad consumer market. Video recording devices were refined and used in professional markets for over a decade before VCRs made it into the living rooms of consumers. PCs spent well over a decade in offices before they became cheap enough for the home and made sense for consumers. I could detail dozens of other examples but the bottom line is most technology gets started and refined in what we call vertical markets well before they get perfected and priced low enough for consumers.

When Google introduced their Google Glass, this was the first thing that came to mind about this project. I wondered if Google even had a clue how tech adoption cycles develop. While it is true glasses had been used in vertical markets since 1998, even after all of this time, we saw no interest by consumers. Google’s decision to aim Glass at consumers first, yet price them as if they were going to vertical markets, stumped me. Even the folks who had spent decades making specialized glasses for use in manufacturing, government applications, and transportation were dumfounded by Google’s consumer focus with Google Glass, priced at $1500.

Apparently, Google found out the hard way how tech products get adopted. They lost hundreds of millions of dollars on this project and, worse yet, they soured the consumer market for similar products. Even those with disposable income who could afford to be a Glass Explorer have to feel taken as Google used them as beta testers at their personal expense. I have seen a recent private report that details the damage in consumer minds about Google Glass and, even if a competitor came to market with a cheaper product better than Glass, they would have a hard time getting anything but vertical users interested.

That is not to say Google Glass 2.0, rumored to be in the works, or even future products like this could gain consumer traction some day, but it will come at a deep marketing cost and may be well into the future if they get accepted at all. In the mean time, products like Sony’s Morpheus, Facebook’s Oculus and even Microsoft’s HoloLens will take aim at a higher-end gaming audience or those focused on virtual and augmented reality and be priced like vertical market products — well out of reach for the general consumer for a long time.

But even if Google Glass 2.0 comes out or others create glasses similar at cheaper prices, I see them as being dead in the water for consumers for quite some time. While Google was playing with Glass, Apple brought out the ideal extension of your smartphone in the form of a watch.

I was a Google Glass Explorer and the experience was horrible from the start. Google Glass now sits in my office museum of failed products. The UI was terrible, the connection unreliable, and the info it delivered had little use to me. It was the worst $1500 I have ever spent in my life. On the other hand, as a researcher, it was a great tool to help me understand what not to do when creating a product for the consumer.

Now, think about Google’s objective to deliver information from my smartphone through a tiny lens on glasses vs Apple’s approach to delivering that same info on a screen on my wrist. My 42 mm Apple Watch face looks like a giant screen by comparison. What I think the market will soon realize is Google’s goal of extending smartphone data to glasses was never a viable product, at least for a broad consumer market. On the other hand, it appears the best wearable to do this is a smart screen on the wrist.

During the Google Glasses hype I saw many people suggesting Apple jump in and do glasses of their own. We now know the Apple Watch had been in the works well before Google Glass came out and Apple already knew the best way to extend the info from a smartphone to a wearable would be via the wrist, not through glasses. To be fair, Google also did smartwatches but they created more of an API for wearables and put the burden on partners for any hardware innovation. I used Google watches for 18 months and while serviceable, they never fulfilled the roll of mirroring a smartphone either.

Google glasses was a debacle for multiple reasons. It gave Google a black eye in the minds of consumers and cost them a lot in the way of consumer confidence when it comes to their efforts in hardware. It also tainted the market for consumer glasses for them and competitors in the future beyond how these products can be used in vertical markets. It also proved to be a debacle for a lot of partners who lost serious money on the Google Glass project. I spoke at a major customer conference of a company who was highly focused on the optical side of the glass. For years, they were very successful in vertical markets but were pulled into the consumer glasses area by Google and the media hype and tried to convince their own customers to jump into the space with competitive products. To their chagrin, most of their customers passed on this and I am sure they are glad they did.

In the end, I think Google’s objective of delivering hands-free information from a smartphone is a viable concept. I just don’t think their glasses will ever be the ideal way to do this and, at least for consumers, it will never become an optimal way to deliver this mirrored data. On the other hand, no pun intended, the smartwatch accomplishes the same goal in a fashionable and non-intrusive way and I suspect it will become the de facto standard for complimenting the smartphone to a wearable device for those in the market who desire this experience.