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Why we love drones and hated Google Glass

17 September 2019

In his first column for DPA, Mike Maynard, Managing Director of Napier, discusses why some technology innovations succeed and others fail, and what this teaches engineers.

Mike Maynard Managing Director of Napier

Just over six years ago, the first customers for a revolutionary new technology got their hands on a product that promised to obsolete the smartphone as we knew it. The product launch in the previous year had featured people using the product when skydiving and riding motorbikes (don’t try that with a mobile phone!), and the excitement was tangible.

It wasn’t just geeks that got excited: the product was listed as one of the “Best Inventions of the Year” by Time Magazine and even the super-fashionable Vogue dedicated a 12-page spread to the product. Some of the early users, called “explorers”, told of being asked to demo the product several times a day, and it seemed that technology had won again. 

Just two years later, however, the “explorers” were called “glassholes”, and Google Glass was dead.

Glass’ shortcomings

There were three main issues that caused the downfall of Google Glass: the product wasn’t ready for consumers (the New York Times claimed that engineers on the design team couldn’t even agree whether it was something that should be worn when needed or all the time); there were concerns about privacy because of the built-in camera and microphone; and frankly people looked geeky when they wore them, despite the efforts of Vogue to make them cool.

Drones: successful innovation

Compare this to drones. They’ve become a phenomenal success, yet on the face of it had many of the drawbacks of Google Glass. Drones definitely weren’t a finished product when momentum started gathering behind their use at around the same time Google Glass launched: the BBC even quoted an expert in 2013 warning about Amazon’s trials of delivery drones, who said “The UAVs do not currently have the awareness of their environment to be able to avoid flying into people.”

Privacy is also a major issue for drones, with some Americans even shooting down drones that are overflying their gardens. In fact, drones seem to attract bad publicity as much as Google Glass did: just ask the 140,000 people who had their Christmas holidays delayed or cancelled because of drone flying near Gatwick Airport in December 2018.

Crossing the Chasm

One way to understand why two technologies, both disruptive, but with similar flaws had such different outcomes is to refer to a book published almost 30 years ago. In 1991, Geoffrey Moore’s “Crossing the Chasm” changed the way that many companies in technology viewed product launches.

If you think back to your engineering course, you may have been told about the technology adoption lifecycle: products are first used by innovators, then early adopters, then the early and late majority become customers and finally the laggards catch up. Moore said that there isn’t a smooth curve, but rather there is a chasm between visionaries (early adopters) and pragmatists (early majority).

Moore told us that the mindset of the early majority is very different from early adopters. This means that companies must change the positioning of the product from being a disruptive solution to one that delivers productivity improvements. Unlike early adopters, the more conservative early majority don’t want to have discontinuous change: they want incremental improvements that enhance what they had before.

If we consider our examples, Google Glass suffered from being a product of one of the geekiest companies in the world, and the product was never promoted as anything other than something to “change the world”. Drones on the other hand started gaining consumer adoption as a better way to take photos. Whether you wanted a wedding picture, a selfie in a beautiful landscape, or just wanted to survey a roof without climbing a ladder, drones were an incremental improvement.

What does this marketing theory tell engineers?

What does Crossing the Chasm teach engineers? I think the lesson is that however different your product might be, designing-in familiarity is essential for commercial success. Familiarity isn’t just a marketing tool: it can even impact safety. The US Navy found that the vast majority of their sailors preferred wheels and throttles to touch screens, which were identified as one of the causes of the 2017 collisions involving the USS Fitzgerald in June and the USS McCain in August, killing 17 in total.

So, whatever you are developing, however radical its capabilities are, make sure that the user feels it relates to an existing solution. Whether you are developing the next big thing in the consumer market or a complex industrial product, it’s likely that familiarity will breed success.

Mike Maynard is the Managing Director of Napier, a B2B PR and Marketing agency, who still misses his early career as an electronics engineer. He loves talking with engineers and tech marketers, so connect with him on LinkedIn, or give him a call.

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