How a Technology-Push Process Led to the Reboot of Google Glass

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Google Glass exploded into the tech scene in 2012 with the pomp and circumstance of an Apple product unveiling. It put “wearable technology” into the lexicon of the masses. Accolades poured in from both the technology world and the fashion world. Celebrities, politicians, runway models, even Prince Charles wore them in public. And yet, as of January 2015, Google Glass as we knew it was no more.

There are many great articles that explored what went wrong. I will not repeat the many excellent points made. Instead, I would like to explore how Google approaches new technology development, and how that approach, together with the initial public relations hype and the lack of a killer app, ultimately led Google Glass down the path of a reboot.
Google and the Technology-Push Approach

First of all, Google is fundamentally a technology company, run by technocrats. They even make product manager candidates do whiteboard coding during job interviews. Google does not define and develop products like Proctor and Gamble: through market pull and problem identification. Instead, Google consistently pursues products as technology pushes. This approach often results in solutions that are either in search of a problem, or solves a problem in a less-than-effective manner. Think about Google+, Google Wave, Google Health, or other former Google projects which were subsequently shelved.

A technology push process is not necessarily an invalid strategy for Google. With an R&D spend of $2.18B in Q4 2014 alone, Google can afford to take large-scale risks. So, they try many things – and some fail. Project Glass’s first incarnation happened to be one of them.
The Perils of an Over-Hyped Hardware Beta

Now let us look at how the PR hype surrounding Project Glass ultimately proved to be sizzle without the steak. We can hypothesize about why Google went public so early. Staking a claim in wearable devices could build Google’s reputation as a thought leader in all of technology, not just software. Google might have felt pressured to claim first mover’s advantage in this emerging but crowded field. Opening up Glass to developers allowed Google to start building an ecosystem, the importance was proved by the iPhone and its AppStore. Last but not least, there was so much pent up curiosity that a news leak was imminent. By going public, Google could control the narrative more effectively.

What happened in the next three years highlights the difficulty of managing a wildly over-publicized hardware beta program. Google launched Project Glass to much fanfare. However, the product was in beta – a concept many of its early fans found alien. Over time, the rough edges of the product started to disappoint its fans. Users fell out of love with a device that solved no mainstream problems, and was not beautiful enough to be a fashion accessory. Developers became concerned about the shrinking customer base and their interest waned.

Once the hype wore off, it became evident that the emperor had no clothes. The press turned against it. Users abandoned it. Eventually, Google cut off life support and opted for reincarnation.
A Groundbreaking Interface Without a Killer App

Lastly, let us look at Google Glass as a novel interface device. The concept promised to fundamentally reinvent how humans interacted with data, their environment, and each other. But the device alone was insufficient. Users needed a killer app to realize this vision – and it was nowhere to be found.

If we look at advances in innovative input devices in the past 30 years, the ones that took off did so with synergistic killer apps. The keyboard and PC had word processing. The mouse had the spreadsheet. The touch screen had mobile phones and tablets. Conversely, devices that fell by the wayside were innovative but did not come with compelling use cases. Think of the Microsoft surface powered coffee tables, or force feedback devices for gaming.

For Google Glass, there were never any compelling use cases that solved real customer problems. Look at the best of what ReadWhite came up with in early 2013. Unfortunately for Glass, the most plausible use case – discreetly taking pictures or video clips – created a massive backlash and huge negativity in the mass market.

At the end of the day, Project Glass was a fabulous technology project, but it was neither a product nor a business. Google Glass is now under the leadership of Tony Fadell. We will have to see how the team reimagines the problem statement, and creates a solution that delights customers while solving real customer needs.

Elaine Chen is a Senior Lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management. She is also the Founder and Managing Director of ConceptSpring. Follow Elaine on Twitter: @chenelaine

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