Google’s Strategy vs. Glass’s Potential
May 28, 2014 Editor 0
When professor Tom Eisenmann first taught his newly released case on Google Glass at Harvard Business School, he asked his students which of three scenarios was most plausible: that Glass would catch on first in the enterprise setting, followed by gradual consumer acceptance; that adoption would be limited to early adopter “digerati” consumers; or that mainstream consumer adoption would happen rapidly.
Many students voted for the first scenario. They’re not alone.
Firms like Deloitte have predicted robust consumer demand for smart glasses, with global adoption reaching “tens of millions by 2016 and surpassing 100 million by 2020.” But early reports suggest that professions from medicine to manufacturing are interested while consumers remain wary. As Quartz reported last year:
Members of the Glass operations team have been on the road showing it off to companies and organizations, and they told Quartz that some of the most enthusiastic responses have come from manufacturers, teachers, medical companies, and hospitals. That suggests that they may be trying to persuade firms to buy the device and develop applications for it.
Sure enough, in April Google announced “Glass for Work,” an initiative aimed at developing more work-related apps on the Glass platform.
Glass may yet turn out to be a great consumer success. But in the meantime, Google’s choices in marketing and distributing its new product get to the heart of the tension between new opportunities and existing strategy.
Google’s strategy to date has been to build great consumer software, then extend these popular applications to enterprises with additional features, often at a fraction of the cost of competitors. Despite the Glass for Work announcement, it is clear both from the case and the company’s public positioning that it conceives of Glass first and foremost as a consumer device. In March, it announced a major partnership with Luxottica, the world’s largest eyewear company, a move clearly aimed at the mainstream market.
At the same time, the case indicates that the team behind Glass recognizes that it doesn’t yet fully know what it has created. Glass product manager Steve Lee is quoted as saying:
Major new consumer tech products are rarely brought out of the lab at this stage of development. But we knew that by putting prototypes into the wild, we’d start to learn how this radical new technology— something that sits on your face, so close to your senses—might be used.
One of the things they seem to have learned is that there is meaningful demand for enterprise applications.
Google has never been afraid to branch out beyond its core business; it expanded beyond search into email, chat, mobile operating systems, and more. But all these cases were complementary in that they were aimed at consumers.
Glass is different. It is one of the first products to launch out of Google X, the company’s research lab that aspires to “moonshot” innovations, and which is also developing a self-driving car. In 2013, BusinessWeek quoted Google X director Astro Teller as saying, “If there’s an enormous problem with the world, and we can convince ourselves that over some long but not unreasonable period of time we can make that problem go away, then we don’t need a business plan.” Of Glass, he said:
“We are proposing that there is value in a totally new product category and a totally new set of questions… Just like the Apple II proposed, Would you reasonably want a computer in your home if you weren’t an accountant or professional? That is the question Glass is asking, and I hope in the end that is how it will be judged.”
The comparison to the PC is telling. Google has been at the forefront of the trend toward consumer technologies being adopted by enterprises, but the history of computing contains more examples of the reverse. The adoption of computers by firms predated the rise of the PC, and the killer app for the Apple II was VisiCalc, the first ever spreadsheet program.
What if the opportunity in smart glasses really is in enterprises, or at the very least starts there? Should Google revise its strategy to pursue that opportunity?
Numerous frameworks exist for answering this question. Some emphasize the importance of sticking to innovations adjacent to a firm’s core business. Others suggest that a subset of innovation projects be aimed at entirely new markets, regardless of adjacency. Still others offer different deciding factors, like whether management is supportive. But ultimately Google is Google. With Google X the company is attempting to put its mark on the very process of technological innovation. In doing so, it will have to decide for itself whether innovation follows from strategy, or whether it’s sometimes ok for it to be the other way around.
Whatever the answer, there is a lesson here about transformative innovation. Though you may set out to explore strategic territory, there’s no guarantee that that’s where you’ll end up.
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