Earlier today, Google unveiled its heads-up display (HUD) product, Google Glass. Basically, it's a web-connected version of Geordi's VISOR from Star Trek, or maybe Marty Jr.'s media glasses from Back to the Future II. The Internet is buzzing with speculation about whether it will be the next iPhone or the next Segway, and some pundits (you know the ones) are predicting doom for Google's competitors.
There are a number of ways to look at a product like this, and the one with which I as an MBA student feel most comfortable is the Rogers’ Five Factors model, which has historically been a reliable predictor of the diffusion rate of new technologies. I think it would be valuable to analyze Google Glass within this framework.
Rogers' Five Factors include:
1. Perceived relative advantage over competing products 2. Compatibility with existing values and experiences 3. Complexity and ease of use 4. Trialability and opportunity to try before purchasing 5. Observability in the real world.
Let's give the product itself the benefit of the doubt and assume for the sake of argument that Google Glass will work exactly as promised. Regardless, the success of Google Glass will depend on the extent to which it fulfills the requirements of each of these factors. Let's run through them one by one.
1. Perceived relative advantage over competing products
Here we need to analyze Google Glass not by its form, but by its function. There aren't many available HUD displays on the market, but there are a number of products that allow people to access online information on the go. Smartphones are the most obvious comparable, and for the sake of argument, we'll say that the iPhone is and will remain the industry standard for smartphones for the next couple of years.
What is Google Glass's relative advantage over the iPhone? First, it removes the step of having to take the item out of your pocket to access information. Second, it provides that information to you in real time in a true "augmented reality" fashion. Those are the two primary advantages - albeit not advantages that people are demanding right now. (Then again, if Ford had asked people what they wanted...) Whether or not these are actually seen as advantages by the market remains to be seen.
Where does Google Glass fall short of the iPhone? Well, not being connected all the time is not necessarily a bad thing. Information overload could become a serious issue with Google Glass, especially if Google stays true to form and tries to make its money on ads layered over your vision. It's kind of a goofy-looking product, and not terribly discrete (although this might change with time). And we don't know what Google Glass will cost, which makes it difficult to judge whether you'll be getting a good bang for your buck.
This issue will become more clear with time, but at the moment, Google Glass doesn't appear to have a tremendous relative advantage over its primary rival. That doesn't doom it, of course, but I think we need to see more to be really convinced that this a product that will truly enhance our lives.
2. Compatability with existing values and experiences
Google Glass is attempting to create a new category of product. That's a good thing, but many successful new categories are derivative of older ones. The smartphone was born out of feature phones. The post-iPad tablet was born out of the smartphone. There was a logical progression from category to category, and that made the new ones easier to understand.
Google's got a harder challenge ahead of it, because the only products that Google Glass resembles are fictitious. In terms of actual usage, we aren't used to the idea of putting on a pair of digital glasses that connect us to the web. It doesn't align with prior experiences, and that's a real barrier to adoption, especially for normal people. Over a long enough period, that could change, but time is a factor in the success of a product, and it might not change quickly enough for Google Glass to succeed.
There's also the question of values. Do we want to be connected to the web all the time? I don't mean in the sense that we have phones in our pockets to check our email. Do we want to have the Internet - and more specifically, Google's idea of the Internet - sitting between ourselves and the real world? Are we ready for that type of augmented reality? There's not a lot of evidence to suggest we are. I think it's a bridge too far for most people. Again, maybe that changes over time, but there are some serious challenges that need to be overcome for this to work.
3. Complexity and ease of use
Here, we really don't have much to go on. I don't want to spit at the idea that a HUD may be a better, more efficient way of interacting with the Internet. You can't do that without sounding like the guys who spat at the Macintosh because it didn't include a command-line interface. Usage patterns changes, and better methods are of interaction are sometimes non-obvious. At first blush, I'm skeptical that this is going to be genuinely better, but it's going to be a wait-and-see category.
This is going to depend on distribution. If Google sells Google Glass entirely through its online portal, hoping the appeal of the product will be self-evident, it will fail. Google Glass will need to be played with in order to sell, and Google doesn't really have the ability to make that happen right now. It could go through cellular carriers or through big box retailers like Best Buy, but I'm not convinced either will provide the sort of experience this product needs. Those retailers are good and letting you buy things you know you need. They're not great at helping you understand things that you don't know you want.
This is why Apple's retail group is so important to its ability to launch new products. When the iPad launched, people needed to play with it understand its appeal. Apple was able to make sure that everyone who wanted to try an iPad could. Google doesn't have a comparable trial service. It needs one to sell Google Glass.
In some ways, the fifth factor is a cheat, because it order for something to be observable, it has to fit the prior four factors well enough to make it into the wild.
Google Glass needs to sell. It doesn't have to sell a ton, but it needs to sell enough for people to see it in public. We'll look at the iPad again. Shortly after the iPad launched, you started seeing people with it in coffee shops or on subways. I was an early adopter, and actually sold three friends on the product after they saw me use it. This sort of observability is critically important to persuading normal people to buy a product.
Where are you going to see Google Glass? In the Bay Area, probably, and among hardcore technies. Elsewhere? I'm not sure, and I'm not sure how people will react to seeing it. I don't know if enough of these will be in the wild to actually close sales for people. (And of course, closing sales is key to make a product observable in the first place.)
So where does that leave us? If we give Google Glass a ranking from 1 to 5 on each factor, with 1 being low and 5 being high, what would we see?
1. Relative Advantage - 2 2. Compatability - 1 3. Complexity - ? 4. Trialability - 2 5. Observability - 2
Within this framework, Google Glass doesn't look promising. Is that the final word on the product? No. Does that mean that the entire HUD category is going to fail? No. But it does mean that Google has some serious challenges to overcome, that it may take quite a bit of time for HUDs to make an impact on the mass market, and that Google may not be the company that reaps the rewards.