Will Google Glass be another iPhone? Will Google grow the wearable displays market at the same level of success achieved by Apple in smartphones? Forrester think so and claim that 12% of the adult American population would buy Glass if it were available now.
That shows some lack of understanding of why, and how, the iPhone succeeded, and the challenges involved in evolving the mobile innovation platform away from the slab form factor. Forrester has a breathless take on it:
Google Glass, the new head-mounted device from Google, has the potential to be the next great platform for app development — as disruptive and fertile a platform as the iPhone has been. Google’s rules of engagement mean big changes for marketers who want to reach customers through Glass: Glass offers unprecedented opportunity to engage your customers — it’s in front of their faces!
But let’s stop right there. Here are three major reasons why Glass has something different going for it, rather than enjoying the iPhone’s success, and also why Glass will accelerate the uptake of existing some mobile technologies – particularly augmented reality.
First the comparison.
1. The iPhone was a substitute product in a vast market. Sales of mobile phones were already huge and maturing by 2007, when the iPhone was launched. The industry began gravitating towards smartphones in 2002 with the launch of the Nokia S60 series but it was still early days – not least because mobile phone companies were driven by engineering issues not usability. The “app” economy of the time was owned by the wireless carriers and that meant plenty of ripoff ring tones and “free” wallpaper that could easily draw you unsuspectedly into a monthly subscription that you didn’t notice until you got your phone bill. It was an exciting industry but shoddy too.
When Apple began work on a smartphone in 2002 the industry was looking very interesting. High growth and yet early stage, with plenty of customer dissatisfaction. One projection at the time said:
Worldwide annual sales of smartphones are expected to grow 89% from 14.6m units in 2003, to 27.6m units in 2004. In 2003, smartphone sales accounted for 3%.
Japan and Korea were the leading markets. By the time Apple launched the iPhone, the market had grown to over 30 million units per quarter. Apple lay third in the global market but with a tiny market share- 5%. Nokia has 45% of the smartphone market, just as it did of the overall mobile phone market, selling, at its peak, 450 million units in one year. Steve Jobs was attracted by a market 10 times the size of the computer market – and it has become a golden rule of new corporate adjacencies – go where there is scale and growth.
The important point is that smartphones were an overdue substitute for existing mobile phones (which by then had a global market of 1 billion units annually).
Apple was, in effect, a substitute for mobile phones that were difficult to use and even difficult to see properly, and a better substitute than its competitors. A lot of its success must go to the App Store and the developer community, which created a huge tide of advocacy, and a new innovation model.
2. These conditions do not apply to Google Glass. Google has developed Glass without any detailed use-case. The use-cases have been developed in conjunction with the public and the developer community. That is a very interesting innovation model and it deserves success. It might indeed trigger rapid market uptake, because the product is somewhat validated before launch. And that’s the core principle of lean innovation – you have no business until you have a market. But Glass is mostly being validated by a community of 2,000 developers, not by customers so we need to be cautious. It will be interesting to see if developers are the best product development managers.
Currently, though, there is no mass market for wearable computing. There is no community of 1 billion dissatisfied users waiting on a change. What there is, potentially, is huge competition in what will be a decade long process of changing human behavior away from the slab form factor.
What is a huge plus point for Glass, and the element that might give it great acceleration, is augmented reality, as mobile expert Tomi Ahonen pointed out to me in a recent interview.
AR currently is mostly experienced through smartphones, like Layar from the Netherlands, which now is increasingly featured in Dutch print magazines, catalogs, books etc, to bring digital interactivity to printed pages. But AR can also be experienced through tablets, through gaming platforms like the PSP, and soon Google Glass.
AR can also be delivered not just visually, but also through sound – the first sound-based treasure hunt AR adventure was done by Japanese rapper Seeda to launch his recent album. When we look at the most advanced AR markets, like Japan, Hong Kong and the Netherlands, we find that AR has achieved over 5% and near 10% adoption levels in the first 2-4 years. This is on par with the same adoption speed as mobile media had from its launch in 1998.
3. Those competitive alternatives are also really worth attention. Google has to convince AR specialists that Android-powered Glass is the right and the main innovation platform for them.
To do that the platform has to be adaptable between different use cases – virtual games, real-world games, productivity, navigation, etc. But the fight to change behavior, even at the level of what consumers will buy next, will also include flexible smartphones (Apple already has patents here, Samsung will be a major supplier and competitors), new plastic displays, 3D displays, wrist based computers (remember the iWatch debate?), distributed computing like FitBand and person to object scenarios too.
Glass is an interesting departure for Google and Android. Google is positively buzzing with innovations that we struggle to make sense of, but which translate quickly into stock price boosters, right now.
But it is hard to argue convincingly that the market conditions are there for rapid market uptake along the same trajectory as the iPhone unless Google becomes another Apple, capable of seamlessly bundling hardware, software, apps and services at extraordinary scale. The iPhone went from 1.3 million units in (fiscal) year 1 to 125 million units in year 6. Glass is more likely, I believe, to find a place in the market alongside a proliferation of form factors all with the appeal, and supply chain experience, that Apple, Samsung and the smaller smartphone players bring to the market everyday. In the next two years though we will find out if Google has what Apple had back then – mastery of the supply chain, of usability, design, distribution and marketing. They all count.