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Google's Leapfrog Is Bigger Than Microsoft's Ape

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Google's Project Glass is a cultural touchstone, and that could mean that it will have commercial relevance.

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In my January 24 column for amNY, I discussed the possibility of Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Project Glass becoming a major game changer in the technology world.

If you're not familiar with Glass, it's a Google program that uses augmented reality technology to beam information directly into the field of view of a pair of glasses. So if you get an email or text message, or are in need of driving directions, Glass can feed you that information instantly -- all you have to do is look. In fact, one day, the glasses may be replaced by contact lenses!

Google Glass is important because it represents a leapfrog move in mobile technology. It can be argued that virtually every mobile gadget released in the past few years was in some way inspired by the success of Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhone and iPad -- including those running on Google's Android operating system.

Google is effectively bypassing the status quo and making a bet on a new way of doing things -- the same way it shook up the Internet in the late 1990s by making things simple and fast, or how Nintendo (PINK:NTDOY) revolutionized gaming with the Wii's innovative motion control system in 2006. (See also: Tech Stock Winners Demonstrate the Power of the Interface.)

To me, this is why Google Glass is far more interesting than any other tech product on the horizon, including Apple's next iPhone, Samsung's (PINK:SSNLF) Galaxy S4 smartphone, and Sony's (NYSE:SNE) PlayStation 4. (See also: With Sony's PlayStation 4 on Deck, Three Tough Questions for the Video Game Bulls.)

Furthermore, Glass is fairly controversial, particularly to those concerned with privacy issues.

Here's an excerpt from an article published on CreativeGood.com that best sums up these fears:

Just think: If a million Google Glasses go out into the world and start storing audio and video of the world around them, the scope of Google search suddenly gets much, much bigger, and that search index will include you. Let me paint a picture. Ten years from now, someone, some company, or some organization, takes an interest in you, wants to know if you've ever said anything they consider offensive, or threatening, or just includes a mention of a certain word or phrase they find interesting. A single search query within Google's cloud – whether initiated by a publicly available search, or a federal subpoena, or anything in between – will instantly bring up documentation of every word you've ever spoken within earshot of a Google Glass device.

This is the discussion we should have about Google Glass. The tech community, by all rights, should be leading this discussion. Yet most techies today are still chattering about whether they'll look cool wearing the device.

This is a rather dystopian view of future society. But seriously, isn't it reasonable to be at least a little worried about being recorded at inopportune times? Yes, we live in a camera phone culture where virtually everything from street fights to wedding dances ends up on the Internet, but Glass has much more of an always-on component than smartphones that spend a lot of time in people's pockets.

Furthermore, shouldn't we be talking about information overload?

There's a wealth of data supporting the idea that we need less data, not more.

In January 2011, consulting firm McKinsey published an article on this topic, noting the negative impact of too much information on productivity, creativity, and happiness. And research from the University of California, Irvine, found that "higher levels of perceived cyber-based overload significantly predicted self-reports of greater stress, poorer health, and less time devoted to contemplative activities."

And from an anecdotal perspective, is it not weird to sit at a table in a restaurant and be surrounded by people who are choosing to play with their phones rather than interact?

But you know what? The fact that Google Glass is driving conversations about the role of technology in modern society is evidence of the device's relevance. And that relevance could mean that Google's on the verge of a blockbuster commercial accomplishment.

I can't help but contrast the potential success of Glass with what's going on with Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) line of Surface tablets, which are probably not selling well, as evidenced by Microsoft's silence on the issue of sales volumes. (See also: If the Microsoft Surface Pro Were a Monster Hit, We'd Know It.)

And why does the Surface line exist? Simple -- because Apple turned tablets into a major product category.

Microsoft saw what was going on with the iPad, and decided to ape it, just like Microsoft did with the Zune following the iPod and with the Windows Phone following the iPhone.

As it stands now, research firm IDC is forecasting that Microsoft operating systems will have 5% of the tablet market share in 2013, and 10% in 2017. You can double that number to 20%, and it still doesn't move the needle for a company with $80 billion in annual revenues whose core market (PCs) is shrinking.

Meanwhile, by attempting to leapfrog over the entire mobile device industry with something completely new, Google's going to have (at least at the start) 100% of a brand new market.

Twitter: @MichaelComeau

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No positions in stocks mentioned.
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