Forget hardware: winning in wearable computing requires software and services

Telepathy One

Have you heard about the latest Google Glass rival? It’s called the Telepathy One and the company behind it just raised $5 million in funding to produce a wearable display planned for a 2014 release. The device looks very futuristic yet perhaps a bit more fashionable than Glass and I’ve noticed a number of other “Glass rivals” pop up of late. But I’m not sold that any of them can rival Glass.

Glass Up

Let me preface that by saying I haven’t used Glass for more than five minutes at Google I/O this past May. Nor have I worn the Telepathy One, the Recon Jet, Glass Up (shown above) — currently trying to raise funds on Indiegogo —  or any other similar products that are either on the market or in the works. But there’s one thing that these potential rivals will likely never have and that’s the power of Google that it has built up over the past decade.

I don’t mean Google as a company. I mean Google as an information source; it’s safe to call Google a “brain” that’s fed by hundreds of millions of internet users through smartphones, tablets and computers. Because of that, and the fact that Google has a huge developer community and a broad range of development tools, it has a huge advantage over any potential rivals in this space, with the possible exception of other big potential competitors such as Microsoft or Apple.

Put another way: Designing and building the hardware for a wearable display may be the easiest part of any rival’s efforts. What happens after that is what will determine the amount of success such a product may have.

I don’t want to pick on the Telepathy folks; they’re a recent entrant to this space, so let’s see what they plan after the hardware phase: releasing a software developer’s kit later this fall. I’m sure Telepathy will create the framework for the user interface and developer tools, but it will have to rely on third-party folks to write apps for an unproven product in a so far unproven market. Or, it will have to invest enormous amounts of its own resources to build those apps.

telepathy

Google is doing both, but Google has far deeper pockets: It already has a whole team of engineers working on Glass apps that tie into other Google services. And when it comes to third-party apps, there are already more than I expected for a product that hasn’t officially launched yet, such as Field Trip and a price comparison app. Of course, it helps to seed thousands of developers with the product, something that few others can do right now.

Recently, the Glass team added support for voice notes in Evernote, showing how it the device can easily tie in to existing apps. And Google Now, also just improved, feeds information to Google Glass as easily as it does to an Android phone or tablet.

Google Glass Now Weather

Instead of trying to build up an app platform from scratch, Google already has the basis for a Google Glass ecosystem and that’s a key success factor for this product type.

And what about the base software the runs on these devices? Unless the rivals get it right the first time, they’ll have to invest effort to do what Google has already committed to: provide updates. Google does this now on a monthly basis. What will it cost a rival to do this at the same frequency? Will it have the resources to do so?

Don’t misunderstand the sentiment here: Competition in any space is good and I’d love to see some of the smaller players make a name for themselves with a Google Glass rival.

But this situation is very much like the smartphone market, where it took a major player — namely, Apple — to break out from the crowd with a new user interface and paradigm to upend the whole market with a successful product. And Apple didn’t just do it with hardware: The company supplemented its handset over time with services and a thriving app ecosystem, in addition to its own useful core apps. We’ll be featuring design and UI for wearables at our RoadMap conference in November in San Francisco.

I suspect the same outcome in wearable computers, particularly in the case of Google Glass. Others may replicate the hardware and some basic functionality but few other companies right now can provide the contextual information and services that will make up the standout features of Google Glass.

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