Google, Apple and the Race to Look Foolish

Google, Apple and the Race to Look Foolish

REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

P.T. Barnum would have fit in perfectly in Silicon Valley. Barnum, you’ll remember, was the circus impresario who once famously said: “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Now, there is some debate as to whether Barnum or one of his competitors actually uttered the phrase, but no matter in this context. The purveyors of these trendy and costly wearable computers are making a case for the statement’s veracity.

Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) is aggressively marketing Google Glass, a head-mounted device which will set you back somewhere in the four figures and enable the user to have a hands-free computer experience. Its features include a camera, microphone and speaker. It links to the Web by Wi-Fi or through a smartphone and has the ability to snap pictures, record video, launch video chats, send messages, do Google searches (well, naturally) and perform other services.

Yes, this is surely innovative but will it find a large market? And how quickly can this happen? Are there enough people who will gladly spend big bucks for the distinction of being the first yuppies on their block to move beyond smartphones and take a dorky-looking leap into hands-free, voice-activated seamless computing?

For the small group of early users and influencers, the device confers status and a hip factor simply because it is so new. Plus, there is the snob appeal of virtually shouting from the rooftops, “Hell yes, I am so rich that I can afford to buy this stuff!”

Of course, being first comes with the risk of looking foolish. As the website pointedly opined in a headline: “Why pay to look like an idiot?” The site noted: “Glass has one huge problem, though: nobody wants to wear it.”

Google is prepared to accept the media’s slings and arrows. Whether the product sells well or not, it serves Google in another fashion and fits into the company’s overall growth strategy. It enables Google to move beyond the information-services universe that it all but owns and expand into the brave new world of consumer products. Google, which finalized its purchase of Motorola Mobility just a year ago, can next launch partnerships with such sunglasses companies as Warby Parker or Ray-Ban and the company also has the facility to branch out to retail shops, much as Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) has done so smartly.

In fact, Google is all but taking a page out of the Apple playbook and, in the P.T. Barnum spirit,  marketing products that you don’t really need to have a good life – but feel you somehow can’t live without. (Lest you think I am mocking Apple’s customers, let me note in the interest of full disclosure, that I own an iPod, iPad, MacBook Pro and iPhone).

Apple, of course, is rumored to be working on its own version of a wearable computer. Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook said during an interview at All Things D’s D11 conference last week that he views wearing a computer as a “profoundly interesting” notion, perhaps opening the door wide to Apple itself entering the market place. Cook said the idea of wearable glasses, however, seems “risky,” but toting around something on your wrist is “natural.”

The drawback is that many young people today don’t actually prefer to wear watches – letting their smartphones act as timekeepers – so the manufacturer would have to go all out to show the skeptical consumer that it is both practical and cool to strap a computer on your wrist.

It will undoubtedly take time, but Wall Street analysts expect to see a mass market embrace wearables, in one style or another. “We are going to see wearable technology evolve over time,” said Tony Wible, an analyst with Janney Montgomery Scott. “It’s fully going to change people’s lives. But it’s going to take more innovation for these companies to get a mass audience eventually for such devices as smart-watches.”

The next wave of wearables would likely have to be lighter, physically attractive and emphasize convenience to a prospective market that covets it, Wible noted.

Don’t sell Google short either. Remember, this is a company that has been so remarkably successful at conquering the global zeitgeist that it even managed to see people transform its corporate name into a commonplace verb. The buzz around Google Glass in recent days has mostly centered on the first x-rated app for the device and Google’s quick move to ban porn from its futuristic eyewear – along with the company’s decision, in response to privacy concerns, not to allow apps that use facial recognition, at least for now.

Those stories make clear Google still has a long way to go – and lots of decisions to make – before Glass is really ready for prime time. Until then, just remember P.T. Barnum.