Sometimes the device is dumb glass, driven by the cloud. And sometime the cloud is dumb storage, driven by the device.
— Benedict Evans (@BenedictEvans) May 27, 2014
I’ve been having the ‘dumb glass or smart device’ conversation with a number of friends lately, and everyone seems to have a really strong opinion on this (I don’t, but I thought it was worth writing about since it’s come up so much).
The question most asked is if the future of the internet will be one of smart-clouds-dumb-devices, or if hardware is going to play a meaningful role in the future of the web. To oversimplify with current companies, if you believe the former you’re probably long Google and short Apple, since you believe that all of the innovation and value will be created in the software layer. If you believe hardware really matters, you think Apple has a bright future, particularly in the short-to-mid term, because there are elements of physical products that make one better than the other, and software is a smaller piece of the equation.
My friends fall into two camps, with distinctly different views of the future:
Dumb Glass People are often software engineers, venture capitalists and technology enthusiasts. They make the argument that the cloud is increasingly where innovation is happening, and where iteration can happen quickly enough to find product-market fit faster than hardware designers and manufacturers can keep up. Therefore, software will ‘eat the world’ and reduce hardware to a commodity space of dumb glass.
Fred Wilson also often talks about fast replacement cycles for smartphones being a strong driver to keep larger devices (e.g. TVs) dumb, and allow them to be controlled by the smartphone. This is a bit of a middle-ground thesis, but I’d place it in the dumb glass camp.
Smart Glass People are generally everyone who thinks about consumer products, and consumer motivations – marketers and product enthusiasts. While the hypothesis of the smart cloud makes a ton of sense form an efficiency standpoint, this camp believes that consumers want specific use cases for their glass. Electronic objects, I would argue, is in this camp, and their promotional video paints a great vision for use-case specific glass:
While it’s true that this device is generally dumb after its setup, most of the value is in the form factor, not the software. There is a specific use case for this unit, so it makes sense as a place to put artwork, and it makes sense as a piece of glass for your wall. Could we all have been doing exactly what EO offers for years with TVs and tablets? Yep. Does anyone ever do that? Nope.
The current device selection is insufficient for this use case – everything on the market is either to big, too small, too glossy, too clunky or just obviously designed for different purposes. It would look dumb on your wall and this looks beautiful. For a product like this, I think it’s probably that simple.
In the short- and mid- term I think hardware is about to explode. In the longterm we’ll probably drive towards some dumb glass standards, but until then, entrepreneurs are going to need to tell people what to do with their glass, and that’s going to open up tons of opportunity.