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How Google Glass Could Change [insert any word you like here]

This article was first published on 1 March 2013.

Before you read anything further you should follow this link to the Google Glass website to see just what Google Glass is and what Google is and isn’t saying about where the project is headed.

I was prompted to write a post on Google Glass by news that Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, has just announced at a TED conference that Google Glass will be available by the end of 2013 at a price point less than $1500.  That news is suddenly all over the web and the print media.

Despite the hype, this is a story worth spending a few minutes on.  And it’s worth spending a few minutes on for two reasons:

  1. The first is the disruptive potential of Google Glass
  2. The second is what the evolution of Google Glass might teach us about the process of disruption and how business leaders and strategists need to respond

Google Glass as a disruptive technology

The original title of the article that prompted this post was “How Google Glass Could Change Advertising” and the extract at the very top of this post is taken from that article.  It’s worth reading the full article to get a sense for the potential impact of this product.  The article is specifically about the impact on advertising but it’s clear that there are number of other industries that could feel the effects of this technology.

I’ve also attached a link (here) to an interesting thought piece on the potential for Google Glass to change the enterprise, i.e. the way we work, gather and interpret information in the workplace.

What the emergence of Google Glass might teach us about the process of disruption

It’s still early days but Google Glass has the potential to be a very interesting live case study in the evolution of a disruptive technology.  It’s not the only example of a potentially disruptive technology but it’s both live and topical at the moment.

My experience is that most of us (and that includes senior executives and strategists) struggle with the future.  We’re comfortable with a view of the future that is largely the same as today plus or minus a few percentage points but are very squeamish about going into territory beyond a linear extrapolation of the present.

I’ve very often heard it said that there’s no point in thinking about what might be, that it’s all just speculation, that it’s pointless trying to plan for things that might never happen.  The suggestion is that conversations about the future might be interesting but at the end of the day it’s all just talk and a waste of time when there are more important things to deal with in the here and now.

The reasons why people adopt this kind of approach to the future are complex.  Regardless of the reasons there’s no doubt in my mind that this approach to the future is dangerous and may actually contribute to the disruptive potential of a range of emerging technologies.

While there’s a lot about the future that can’t be known, there are a number of things that, on the balance of probability, are very likely to happen.  Let’s take a moment to think that through in the context of Google Glass.  We know, for example, that:

  • We know that Google is working on a portable, wearable, connected augmented reality device that they claim will be available by the end of 2013 for less than $1500
  • We know that Google has an innovative culture that gets excited by the idea of disruption and that, once they set their mind on something, their unrivalled access to intellectual and financial resources makes it a pretty sure bet something will happen
  • We know that the first version of Google Glass is likely to be just that – the FIRST model.  Everything we know about technological development and advance tells us that we can expect rapid improvements in capability and rapid reductions in price beyond the first release
  • We also know that the rate of diffusion of new technologies is increasing.   Smartphones, for example, have taken off 10 times faster than PC’s did in the 80’s.  In fact in 2012 alone over 700 million smartphones were sold around the world, a large number of which are driven by Google’s Android operating system.
  • We know that Google has a history of working with partners to bring technologies to market.  Take for example Samsung and HTC in the context of the Android operating system.
  • We know that the high purchase price for most smartphones isn’t an obstacle to mass take-up because network operators bundle the price of the hardware into the relatively small monthly payments for their connectivity plans.
  • We know that this isn’t just about Google.  Qualcomm, the world’s largest manufacturer of chips for smartphones is itself well advanced in the development of platforms for mobile augmented reality and believes the technology is now shifting from being gimmicky to having real potential for education, children’s entertainment, interactive print and other areas such as medicine.

I could keep going but this is enough for a start.  There’s no excuse for waiting until 100 million pairs of Google Glass have been sold to put it on the radar as a potentially big deal.

While we don’t know exactly what the future will look like, given the list of things we do know, it’s reasonable to conclude there’s a very good chance that small, wearable, augmented reality devices will be part of everyday life for millions (and perhaps billions) of people around the world within the next three to five years.

On the other hand I think there’s a negligible probability of Google Glass and augmented reality being a fizzer or having no impact.  Unless it’s an absolute show-stopper, you would have to expect that, even if Google (or others in the field) don’t get it perfect in the first version, there will be a cycle of rapid revisions and improvements just as we saw with the iPhone.

While we often treat technology or change that’s disruptive as though it happened almost overnight, the reality is that most things labelled as disruptive actually emerge slowly over a long time.  The problem is that we’re often either not looking or don’t read the early signals.  While one could be forgiven for treating augmented reality as a weak signal of a futuristic pipe dream a number of years ago, the signals today are very loud and strong and the reality of widespread application of the technology is almost upon us.

So what does that mean if you’re a CEO, senior executive or corporate strategist?  I think the move toward a future in which augmented reality is commonplace is accelerating.  Google Glass will be an important milestone but it will in many ways be just the beginning.  For those that care to look, widespread use of augmented reality in the next three to five years should come as no surprise.  For those that don’t, the risk of being caught off guard (and either being disrupted or missing an opportunity to create new value) will go up dramatically.

If you’re a CEO, senior executive or strategist you need to be watching the augmented reality space.  You need to know who is doing what in the field of augmented reality and what the development timelines look like.  You also need to be thinking about how it might give rise to both vulnerabilities and opportunities in your existing business and how it might trigger or accelerate convergence between your industry and others.  Finally, you need to have a view of what capabilities, alliances etc. you need to be building over the next three to five years to make sure you’re equipped for an augmented reality world.

This still has a long way to play out but it will be very interesting to watch and see who the winners and losers are as augmented reality makes the transition from science fiction to disruptive science fact.

P.S.  The convergence of industries is a major source of disruption and it’s something that CEO’s, senior execs and strategists need to get a handle on.  One obvious point of convergence in the context of Google Glass is the way in which it blurs the lines between computing, fashion and eye wear.  I don’t have any visibility of their strategy but one would hope that the leadership team of Luxottica, the world’s largest manufacturer of eye wear, has Google Glass well and truly on its strategic agenda and is treating its emergence as a very major development.  The window of opportunity for shaping the way this technology evolves will close progressively for companies like Luxottica the longer they leave it before getting on top of this issue.

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