What Does the Failure of Google Glass Mean for Insurance Innovation?

Google’s ‘fast fail’ approach to innovation shows that innovation is not a succeed-or-fail dichotomy but a process—and one that insurers can leverage to build relationships with customers.

(Photo credit: Google.)

If you were hoping to explore the technological wonder of Google Glass for yourself, you’re a day late, even if you’re not a dollar short of its $1,500 price tag. Last week Google announced that Monday, Jan. 19 would be the last day you could buy Google Glass. While the online service provider framed the decision to withdraw Glass from sale as a beginning rather than an end, the fact remains that as a viable consumer device offering, Google Glass has failed. What does that failure say about innovation and hype generally? And what lessons should be drawn from the insurance industry—which has acquired a reputation of being too slow to embrace technological change—about how to balance prudence and an innovative spirit?

The first thing to clarify is that Google Glass’s failure can’t be a knock against innovation generally. We’re obviously living in an innovative age marked by constant improvements in the technology used by consumers and businesses alike. We can see this in how rapidly handheld computing devices have evolved, and indeed how have replaced hand-held phones, which themselves evolved rapidly. We can see it in the popularity of tablets, in the competitive field gaming technology, in the proliferation of connected household appliance capabilities and the emergence of collision avoidance and autonomous driving capabilities. The same is true of back-office business technologies such as cloud and analytics.

Donald Light, Director, Americas Property/Casualty Practice, Celent.

Donald Light, Director, Americas Property/Casualty Practice, Celent.

Arguably, Google Glass represented the most advanced of consumer technologies, integrating various aspects of computing in a wearable device in such a way that it made users seem to be walking vectors of the virtual world. Did that make it too innovative in some sense?

“With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, Google Glass was a consumer product designed by engineers to appeal to, well, other engineers,” comments Donald Light, director of Celent’s (Boston) Americas P&C practice. “Consumers who bought the $1,500 device were called a number of things, but ‘cool’ wasn’t one of them.”

The most notorious name was “glassholes,” in part due the feeling that Glass wearers were arrogantly intruding by bringing a recording device to private conversations. Such capabilities have their place—such as on a cyclist’s helmet—but were found disconcerting as a routine feature of life.

(Related: What CES 2015 Says About Wearable Technology and Insurance)

Celent’s Light suggests that Google Glass might have been better seen for its business capabilities rather than as a consumer product. Glass’s form/function profile—hands-free, heads-up display, sourcing data, video recording capability—implies a variety of business uses, he notes, including insurance-specific ones, such as field adjusters and loss control engineers.

“The form/function of Google Glass will live on, probably in several diverging incarnations,” Light predicts. “But whether any of these will be recognizably ‘Google Glass’—or whether their users will ever be cool—remains to be seen.”

Innovation and Tolerance of Failure

The point is that it’s not hard to imagine something like Google Glass succeeding, given the right mixture of capabilities and the right application. The tolerance of failure is a characteristic of innovative culture, asserts Denise Garth, partner and Chief Digital Officer at SMA (Boston). Innovation requires taking risks and evaluating both failures and successes in order to find the right direction, she says.

“Google Glass is a great example of this, in that Google took a risk by introducing Glass, received mixed reviews and are now using the experience to rethink the product,” Garth adds.

(Related: Insurance and the Internet of Things: Google’s Nest Labs Acquisition)

Garth notes that the Glass project was led by Tony Faddell who has enjoyed success through innovation, first at Apple with the iPod, later by starting Nest Labs, which Google acquired last year. “Under Faddell’s leadership, Google has expanded Nest’s integration with other devices and services to create greater consumer and business value, while recognizing the need for security and privacy of data in a connected home environment,” Garth notes. “This track record bodes well for the next version of Google Glass, making it acceptable and more valuable.”

Jamie Bisker, Senior Analyst, Aite Group.

Jamie Bisker, Senior Analyst, Aite Group.

It may be easy to draw the wrong lesson from Google Glass for the reason that its withdrawal seems abrupt by traditional standards, but is not by Google’s standards, suggests Jamie Bisker, a Columbus, Ohio-based senior analyst with Aite Group. “This most innovative of technology firms is noted for leveraging the ‘fast fail’ method of innovation and is not afraid to go outside the roles that other may have assigned to them—witness their fleet of autonomous driving vehicles,” Bisker notes.

The Glass product signals to insurers that innovation is possible and that the general category of wearable computing—as a subset of ubiquitous computing or the Internet of Things—can be made to work, Bisker stresses.

“The rise of body cams for law enforcement is a logical follow-on to dash cameras in patrol vehicles with which we are already familiar,” Bisker observes. “These are tools to mitigate risk; that our clothing and other worn items such as jewelry can aid in that goal will be useful for the insurance industry although that realization may not happen as quickly as the product and devices roll out.”

New Avenues for Retention

In other words, this particular innovation points to a future wherein insurers will have more reliable sources of actionable information to not only understand claims but to prevent some of them from even happening. That says something about Google Glass and the technology-use categories to which it belongs, but it also carries a lesson about insurance innovation in general, according to Bisker.

The insight that insurers  can take away from the introduction and withdrawal of Google Glass is that innovation is not a singular thing, Bisker advises. “Carriers need to explore new avenues of customer outreach, retention, and service via exploiting technology that they think will help,” he elaborates. “They should even consider advertising that they are doing this as a component of building relationships with customers who understand the need for change. That shows that an insurer is working hard to keep up and—more importantly—to engage their customers along the journey.

Anthony R. O’Donnell // Anthony O'Donnell is Executive Editor of Insurance Innovation Reporter. For nearly two decades, he has been an observer and commentator on the use of information technology in the insurance industry, following industry trends and writing about the use of IT across all sectors of the insurance industry. He can be reached at [email protected] or (503) 936-2803.

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