Google Doesn’t Care if Glass Succeeds

What do self-driving cars, a balloon-powered global aerial wireless network, and wearable computers have in common?

Google is so dominant in search (~67% market share) that it can seem like there’s not much incremental value left for them capture–until you realize global Internet penetration is only 34%. In other words, two-thirds of the world can’t get online at all, let alone Google something.

“Many of us think of the Internet as a global community. But two-thirds of the world’s population does not yet have Internet access.”

What if there was a way to dramatically increase global internet penetration? Enter Google Loon, “a network of balloons traveling on the edge of space, designed to connect people in rural and remote areas, help fill coverage gaps, and bring people back online after disasters.” The success of Loon, or something like it, would be a tremendous win for Google.

If Loon is about bringing access to Google to the two-thirds of the world that doesn’t have it yet, products like Glass and self-driving cars are about increasing the amount of time people can spend Googling. At present, time we spend driving or walking comes at the expense of time we spend online. In the Glass- and self-driving car-enabled future, that’s a tradeoff we don’t have to make. Again, the success of these products, or something like them, would be a tremendous win for Google.

Of course, there are skeptics–African Entrepreneurs Deflate Google’s Internet Balloon Idea, I’m a Google Glass skeptic and think it’ll be the next Apple Newton, the list goes on–but the skeptics may not matter, even if they’re right. The key phrase in each of the previous examples is “or something like it.” Google doesn’t care about the success of Glass (or their version of the self-driving car or Loon) as a consumer product. What they care about is the idea these technologies represent–a market three times its current size, with new surpluses of attention to spare.

No matter who brings the rest of the world online, develops the first breakout wearable computer, or perfects the self-driving car, chances are good it’s Google we’ll be using while we sand-surf across the Sahara towed by a driverless automobile. You can–and companies will–try changing the default option and giving preference to another service, as Apple did when it replaced Google Maps, but that’s worked out poorly in the past.

Google’s investment in these technologies can be seen as part of a shaping strategy aimed at increasing aggregate global online time. Glass spurs Apple to develop the iWatch/iBand, which spurs Samsung…Loon spurs Safaricom…and so on. From this perspective, it’s possible that Google agrees with its critics: It’s all good, as long as someone invents the next iPhone. If these projects can make that happen faster, they will have proved a wise investment.

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