This post originally featured on Forbes.
Recent announcements from Google about the future of Glass naturally ignited an explosion of commentary in the tech media. For those of us in the Glass at Work world, the news that Glass has “graduated” from Google[x] into a true business unit headed by Tony Fadell is very promising. Yet many outlets’ coverage focused on the end of the Glass Explorer program for consumers, characterizing it as the final death knell for the technology.
So why the disconnect?
Historically, Glass has fallen victim to the technology hype lifecycle, and has done so more strongly than most technologies.
The Technology Hype Lifecycle
There’s a famous graph you’ve probably seen before on the Internet that charts the lifecycle of hype for new technologies.
But in a number of ways, this graph isn’t quite right – specifically, the plateau of productivity isn’t illustrated correctly. Technologies plateau far above the peak of inflated expectations.
Consider Mobile Computing
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Microsoft recognized the potential of mobile devices, so they built Windows Mobile and worked with OEMs to deliver Windows Mobile phones. They were way too early and made some fundamentally poor design decisions. They dreamed big, but failed to deliver on most of them. By 2004, BlackBerry was emerging with phones that could support basic business communications, contacts and calendar functions. Mobile computing was exiting the trough of disillusionment. Google saw this and bought Android in 2005. Rumors suggest Apple started development of the iPhone in late 2004/early 2005. They saw it too.
What no one foresaw was not only how fast the curve would ramp up, but the magnitude of the peak. Even in 2009, no one could have imagined Uber or Tinder or Snapchat, let alone 2007. Even today, we still do not know where the curve will plateau. How could Microsoft, or anyone else for that matter, have seen the potential of mobile computing in 1999 when they committed to building the (failed) future of mobile computing?
The mobile computing hype cycle graph actually looks something more like this.
Who knows which of today’s Series A and Series B stage startups are the next Uber? Kevin Spain from Emergence Capital has recently been evangelizing that today’s enterprise mobility market resembles that of the cloud in 2004. If that’s the case (and given mobile’s incredible penetration today), there is only one inevitable conclusion: mobile is eating everything.
So What About Glass?
Right now, in early 2015, Glass seems to be deep in the trough of disillusionment. The media has been hammering Glass lately, declaring its demise and failure, and before today’s announcement, Google itself was very quiet about Glass’s future. For the record, Glass is not just alive and well, but thriving in professional and enterprise use cases.
But what’s much more important isn’t Glass’s near-miss with death, but its tremendous potential. Glass is today where mobile computing was in 2000: dreams seemingly shattered by early setbacks.
The Glass curve will look a lot more like the mobile curve than the famous generic curve. We are seeing tremendous growth as enterprises adopt Glass to solve painful economic problems that were previously unsolvable.
The Glass growth curve will not mirror the mobile growth curve identically. Glass will peak at a lower point on the hype cycle graph than smartphones did. Smart glasses simply don’t have the upside potential on a per-person basis that smartphones do. Glass competes with smartphones; smartphones compete with laptops. The marginal improvement from always-on-you smartphones to hands-free Glass is material, but not as large as the jump from sitting-only laptops to always-on-you smartphones. Moreover, the best use cases for Glass are for desk-less, hands-on workers; these workers typically earn substantially less than their white collar, desk-bound counterparts. Smartphones amplify the productivity of expensive workers; glasses multiply the productivity of less expensive workers.
Having said that, Glass is still nascent today. We are at the tip of the iceberg. There is tremendous potential to be had in hardware, software and services. Over the next few years, we will see tremendous innovation from startups and giants. Hardware experiences are going to diverge. Software developers will experiment and pioneer new user-interaction models. Cloud services will evolve and take on an increasing percentage of computing. We know nothing, which means we can still do anything.