The Gadget Race Is Not The Gadget Race Is Not To The Swift

A blog about business and economics.
May 3 2013 11:50 AM

The Success of Google Glass Is Not The Success of Heads-Up Display Mobile Computing

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US blogger Robert Scoble presents the Google Glass on April 24, 2013 at the 'NEXT Berlin' conference in Berlin.

Photo by Ole Spata/AFP/Getty Images

Marcus Wohlsen wrote what I think is a fairly persuasive piece arguing that Google Glass will be a commercial failure because you look like an idiot using it. My good friend Tom Lee calls Wohlsen's piece "truly awful" and goes on to write a fairly persuasive piece about the importance of heads-up displays and mobile computing. The issue here is that pioneering a successful product category and pioneering a successful product are actually different things.

Google, in mostly great ways, is a company with a geek/engineer ethos down to its soul. But that means both that it might make a product like Glass without due consideration of the "how does it make me look" factor (engineering over aesthetics) and also that it might invest in great innovations without due consideration of their prospects as businesses (engineering over commerce). This makes Google one of the great forces for the good in the world, but I wouldn't be surprised if Google Glass turns out to be a fairly unsuccessful product and nonetheless five years from now everyone who's anyone is unwrapping a great new heads-up display device for Christmas.

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If you think about the history of digital gadgets, pioneers are rarely winners. Apple was first to market with a commercially viable PC graphical user interface, but Microsoft made all the money. Microsoft was first to market with a commercially viable tablet computer, but Apple made all the money. Samsung did not invent smartphones or Android or even Android smartphones, but it's built far and away the best Android smartphone business out there.

Which is just to say that the idea of a heads-up display that gives you persistent Internet connectivity really does have a lot of promise, but it's also true that Google Glass looks super-dorky. One hurdle any new gadget faces is that when it's brand-new it doesn't seem like anyone "needs" it. The "need" only becomes apparently when a critical mass of people are already using it. Something that's too funny-looking will have a hard time getting that critical mass, and I think it's very plausible that it will take some other, more fashion-conscious company to make it happen. But if it does, that's hardly a disaster for Google. Google's primary business isn't gadgets, it's connected online services. New gadgets that increase people's engagement with online services are good for Google whether or not Google is the one that's selling them. If Google Glass mostly ends up serving as a proof of concept that spurs other companies to invest in copycat products, that's still a win. The truly great thing about Google is that it really does take its profits and reinvest them in new ideas. Glass is a great example of that, and I'm happy to applaud it. But it looks silly.

Correction, May 3, 2013: This post originally misspelled Marcus Wohlsen's last name.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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