Google in Talks to Acquire Smart Glasses Startup North – Report
The Globe and Mail reported yesterday that Canadian smart glasses startup North is in advanced talks to be acquired by Google parent Alphabet for $180 million. That is only about $20 million more than the company has raised in venture capital since its founding in 2012.
Some people might be inclined to see irony in this move given that Google virtually created the smart glasses category with Glass which launched to much fanfare in 2013, a year after North’s founding. Glass never achieved consumer success and shut that part of the business down in 2015. It then reintroduced the product in 2017 as the Google Glass Enterprise Edition. Is Google looking for another shot at the consumer business with North’s technology and design? Maybe, but another story is more likely.
Acquiring Intel’s Smart Glasses IP
The most valuable part of North is likely the IP it acquired from Intel in late 2018. Intel had built up a sizeable patent portfolio related to the Vaunt smart glasses which never made it past a prototype phase. The report from The Globe and Mail suggests North has sold fewer than 1,00 units so there is no illusion of acquiring an up-and-coming breakout consumer product. Intel’s patents and designs along with similar IP from North could be useful in Google’s enterprise business as well as consumer products if it seeks to reenter that segment. And, it provides another layer of protection against lawsuits.
Competing with Amazon and Apple
Google has been shoring up its portfolio of personal devices and acquiring North could be a hedge against rivals getting more advantage in the wearables segment. In November 2019, the company acquired Fitbit to create a beachhead in the smart watch segment which is dominated today by Apple with Samsung a distant second. Amazon introduced Alexa-powered glasses in September 2019 and Apple is rumored to be working on more sophisticated devices that won’t even be announced until 2022. However, Google is likely wary of getting shut out of an emerging consumer segment that could be popular.
Amazon’s move to introduce its own smart glasses was interesting given that just a few months prior North was exhibiting in Amazon’s CES activation. With that said, Amazon’s model, the Echo Frames, do not have any visual projection technology and instead are strictly for use with voice and audio. North Focals have voice, audio, and visual which is similar to what is expected from Apple.
More and more we see Google trying to match physical product portfolios with Apple and Amazon. Pixelbuds smart earbuds are a response to AirPods and the Fitbit acquisition a response to Apple Watch. Google smart speakers were a response to Amazon Echo and its smart displays seen as an answer to Echo Show. You never know when a gap in your product portfolio could put you at a disadvantage to rivals.
The acquisition of North is more likely a defensive move by Google than a newfound commitment to consumer-grade smart glasses. However, they do provide an option to move forward in that space with a product that is far more mature than Google Glass Explorer edition and it does also align with some Google plans around augmented reality (AR). In addition, there might be some options to expand smart glasses usage in the enterprise with current North products or its IP. Plus, patent protections, of course.
North looks at this point like more carnage on the road to smart glasses nirvana. But, maybe its innovations will live on and get a new lease on life from Google which has ample incentive to make the product work at scale.