A half-baked Google smartwatch could sabotage Google Glass


Google founder Sergey Brin poses for a portrait wearing Google Glass. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Maybe it’s all those aggressive smartwatch sales projections – 373 million units sold annually by 2020 – that are making normally level-headed tech companies rush out with their own versions of a smartwatch in 2014. Now it appears that Google, in collaboration with LG, is hoping to offer a Google smartwatch to tech consumers before the start of summer.

The only problem is, it seems like Google is rushing its smartwatch product to market, and that could have a chilling effect on sales of the product that Google really wants to sell: Google Glass. Both are products in the red-hot wearable tech market. Whereas the Google smartwatch is a “me-too” item that faces strong competition from the likes of Samsung (which recently introduced a second-generation smartwatch) and Apple (if it ever brings its oft-rumored iWatch to market), Google Glass has been pitched as a transformative product worn by supermodels at DVF and worthy of being displayed in the pages of the Vogue.

In contrast to Google Glass, the new Google smartwatch sounds like something that couldn’t even get past the bouncer at New York Fashion Week. Consider that the original rumors pegged the Google smartwatch as a cool-looking, metallic watch along the lines of the Pebble Steel with full smartphone functionality (i.e. the ability to make and receive calls) that could be purchased as a standalone item by any connoisseur of the wearable tech revolution.

But where are we now? The Google smartwatch is likely to be made of plastic, not steel, and any type of robust functionality is going to be replaced by just a bunch of alerts and updates – stock updates, sports scores, and an ongoing display of who’s calling and texting you. Even worse, given the expected weak battery life and the limited feature set, the Google smartwatch likely to be marketed as just an “accessory” to your Android phone, rather than as a brand-new, must-have tech consumer device.

This defining-down of expectations for the Google smartwatch has real implications for sales of Google Glass. From the very outset, Google Glass was marketed as a product for the early adopter with a sense of fashion. All those fashion stories about Google’s links to DVF and Warby Parker were for good reason – it not only helped to sell the whole story of wearable tech, it also helped to alleviate all the negative “Glasshole” stories about geeky consumers using Google Glass in geeky ways. Google Glass was intended as a premium product.

Assume that Google does have a new smartwatch ready to bring to market by late spring or early summer. The risk is that consumers will get a spotty introduction to the world of wearable tech, and won’t even bother with Google Glass when it enters the market. In a worst-case scenario, a poorly designed and rushed wearable tech watch could spoil the whole wearable tech revolution for Google. Paying nearly $300 for a device that doesn’t look particularly fashionable that’s basically a stock ticker for your wrist doesn’t sound terribly innovative. People will assume that Google Glass is just more of the same – instead of stock quotes and texts delivered to your wrist, it will deliver them to your retina.

If you’re an investor in Google, however, the numbers probably look pretty good. Assuming $19 billion in wearable tech sales by 2018, let’s assume that Google somehow manages to capture one quarter of the market, with one-quarter going to Samsung, and another half going to everyone else (including Apple and Microsoft). That’s still $4.75 billion in new revenue for Google. A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation (assuming $300 per unit) — works out to nearly 15 million Google wearable tech devices sold per year. If you take even more aggressive estimates, Google could be moving 100 million units per year. Not bad.

The Google Glass vs. Google smartwatch dilemma is exactly the type of choice that a lot of tech companies are going to have make as formerly hot growth markets – such as tablets and smartphones – start to dry up. Do you offer new products simply to plug gaps in your product line, or do you opt to focus on truly revolutionary, breakthrough products? The safe choice is not always the best choice. Samsung already won bragging rights as the first to market with its Galaxy Gear smartwatch, so it’s not like Google is simply rushing a product to market to be first.

At the end of the day, the wearable tech revolution needs a poster child. Google Glass was supposed to be that poster child. Let’s hope that the arrival of the Google smartwatch is part of a well-thought-out strategy rather than just the latest case of a “me-too” reflex response typical of so many other tech companies trying to catch up with the true innovation leaders.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
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