Pictured above is Google Glass: Google designed eye ware that does not help you see. Two of the most notable things about the product is that it has absolutely nothing to do with vision, and it doesn't actually exist as a product. Even though there are a handful of very rich and geeky people walking around with prototypes of Glass, it is not a given that the product will ever be sold to the public. It is a skunkworks project being developed in public. ...and it is not alone:
Google is not the only company engaged in this type of activity. Everyone is doing it from Microsoft to Amazon. Once upon a time, these types of products would be called vaporware because, like vapor, they proved to be insubstantual once you tried to grasp them. The term was actually something of a pajorative. Today, it is the norm for every major company except Apple. Why?
There is no company in the world with more mindshare than Apple. Pop-culture has embraced Apple products like no others. Seeing an iPad, iPhone, or Mac used in a TV show is both natural and expected. No one looks twice when encountering Apple products in the wild. Seeing an Android or Microsoft tablet in the same situation is cause for a second look. No one really things the NFL cares about the Microsoft Surface or Galaxy Tab. Such an encounter looks sinicle and contrived. We all expect that when the cameras go off, the iPad comes on.
Other companies would kill for that kind of mindshare. The only problem is that no one shows the kind of interest in competitie products as they do Apple products. Short of killing, companies have resorted to presenting products that are interesting, but that they don't have to actually build and market. Regardless of how you feel about Google Glass, at least it's interesting, and worth talking about, even if only to mock it. Every discussion about Glass is a discussion that is not about a real Apple product. That is a win for Google. They get a lot of free mindshare without having to go through the expense of shipping a product. Even the R&D is offset by the fact they are getting people to pay for the pirvilege of being beta testers for a product that may never ship.
The illusion of leadership
Samsung has taught us that crime most definitely pays. Using someone else's R&D is a lot faster and cheaper than using your own. But most companies do not want to be regarded as copyists and thieves. They want to be regarded as innovators and leaders. Unfortunately, their not. The best they seem to be able to manage is being iterators of Apple products.
The path to the illusion of leadership is to figure out where Apple is going and announce that you are in the process of getting there. You don't actually have to get a decent product out on the market first. You just have to beat Apple to the microphone. By announcing your intentions, and perhaps a mockup, you can show the world that you were not copying Apple at all. It was entirely your idea, or at least, it is where the industry was heading anyway. Apple had nothing to do with it. They don't even have a product in that category. Oh, now they are announcing a product. Well, maybe Apple is copying you. That's the game.
Google is the latest player with their announcement of Android Ware. It is Android for smart watches. Google, along with the rest of the industry, has every reason to believe that Apple is prepping an industry-defining smart watch product. There are no, credible Android products on the market. The only products available are the obvious, cynical attempts to beat Apple to market. They bear no mention.
Google is not sure they can be first if they wait till their software is actually complete. So they have announced an SDK in its early stages. Manufacturers with early access are pre-announcing products they intend to release based on the SDK. They have also released photos and videos of prototypes of products. These products are not available to the press for review, or even first impressions. They are vaporware, and may never be released in the form announced. But they are being treated like real products.
The tech world seems to forget how easy it is to announce a product, or mock up a product, or distribute an unfinished product. Right now, that is all Android Ware is. To be sure, I have no doubt that we will see it in product form. But what has been shown is not the final draft. There can be no critical analysis about it as it is all subject to change. That being said, it has already done its job by beating the iWatch to the mic, and making Google look like the company that is leading the way to our smart watch future.
One of the most tangible benefits to developing products in public is that the company can crowdsource their market research without having to pay for it, or risk producing a product that people may not like. It is a lot like beta testing an idea. In politics, it is called floating a trial balloon. Often times, companies float an idea just to gauge reaction. If people react positively to it, they might go ahead and produce the product or service. If the reaction is overly negative, the product or service never sees the light of day. It is a cowards approach, and anything but leadership.
A leader figures out what it is people want or need before the potential customer even knows it. A leader might have to sell her idea to the public, convince them that this new thing is better than what they thought they wanted. A leader molds expectations, not panders to them. Crowdsourcing is not leadership, but it is cheaper and less risky.
Conclusion: keeping it real
At the end of the day, the best ideas and the best prototypes have to become best-in-class products that compete at the cash register with other best-in-class products. That is where the vapor world falls apart. Vaporware is almost always better than shipping products. Ideas are easy. I can imagine a flying car that runs on banana peals. I can have an artist draw it up, and even produce a video of the non-existent product that will leave you drooling for the real thing. It would be so good, it will make your new BMW seem pedestrian by comparison. The only problem is that it wouldn't be real.
It is easy to do a 3D mockup of something a lot nicer than the iPhone or iPad. You can come up with all kinds of neat iWatch designs, or concepts for a new Apple TV. Since nothing in the vapor world can be handled or reviewed by professionals, nothing critical can be said about them. They are perfect in every way because they are powered by imagination juice. Such fantasies never live up to expectations when they are finally released. They are like great trailers to bad movies.
Some people are so desperate to have something cool produced by someone other than Apple, that they will gladly live in vapor world where Apple products do not exist. Amazon says, “Look at me! I'm making drones for delivering packages!” Microsoft says, “Look at me! I'm making a big touchscreen table!” Google says, “Look at me! I'm making glasses and contact lenses that don't help you see, and the framework of an Apple-killing smart watch!” Depending on your particular disposition, it is a beautiful world in which to live.
Then there is the real world. Apple says, “Look at me! I have the best-selling notebooks, smartphones, and tablets. They are not only the best-selling, but the most desirable and profitable of their kind!” Once you leave vapor world, you find yourself in Best Buy where there are real products on the shelf competing for your money and attention. In that world, Apple rules.