Google Glass Or Smart Watch: Which One Makes Mobile Retail Better?

Which do you think customers prefer: A mobile commerce accessory that's big, obvious and even obnoxious, or one that's practically invisible? OK, that's a loaded question—but it's also one that every retailer faces now, as Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) Glass and smart watches quickly approach becoming widely available.

Google Glass, of course, is the flashy, highly visible headset with a camera that can record everything a Glass user looks at, and also serves as a head-mounted display for apps and websites. It can also be tethered to a smartphone via Bluetooth to make use of the phone's Internet connection and, presumably, retail apps.

Smart watches, on the other hand, are effectively invisible unless you're looking for them. For many mobile phone users, regular watches have all but disappeared—the phone's time is more accurate and automatically updates after a plane trip or the end of Daylight Saving time—but a watch is still probably the most common accessory for men, and a smart watch isn't likely to stand out. It connects via Bluetooth, too.

Which one is better? Just judging by the specs, Google Glass has the edge: a bigger virtual display, a more natural way of pointing the camera, a complete set of gestures already defined (plus voice input!) for users to interact with the device. As a way to do mobile shopping or augment an in-store experience, it's clearly a dramatically richer experience.

It's also already being banned in some places. The big problem is the camera, which for some reason many people who aren't wearing Glass don't want pointed in their direction. Of course, anyone with a strategically placed mobile phone could be photographing them just as easily, but that doesn't make those people want to ban phones. That suggests the real problem is that Glass is literally too in-your-face.

Besides, take away the camera and Glass still looks pretty geeky. It also has a more serious issue: That virtual display can obscure the Glass user's vision, or at least be very distracting. For a use-it-anywhere mobile accessory, that's a very limiting characteristic.

What about the smart watch? The display is too small. Gestures are likely limited to a swipe or tap. It's something like a feature phone for your smartphone: the time on a tiny screen, plus the occasional tiny message. Who would want one of those?

Probably just about everyone.

Let's face it, Google Glass does a lot. A smart watch really only does one thing well: It lets the user keep his phone in his pocket.

That, for many people, is a killer app.

Yes, someone with a Bluetooth earpiece can answer a call without pulling out the phone. But that person doesn't know who's calling. That's something a smart watch can display.

It can also display text messages (or even just the fact that a text message has arrived). More to the mobile-retail point, it can display the arrival of alerts and offers from retailers. EBay (NASDAQ:EBAY) already has an app for keeping users updated on auctions, with the ability to raise a bid with a swipe. Most retailers just need the ability for users to accept, store or dismiss an alert, coupon or offer. That's easy to do with a swipe too—without ever pulling out the phone.

As more and more retailers start using geofencing and firing off alerts when a would-be customer crosses into the zone, those customers are going to be spending a lot of time taking out that phone to handle alerts. Very quickly those alerts will become an annoyance. And every retailer knows what happens then: Apps are uninstalled, and mobile retail opportunities are lost.

But if the phone doesn't have to come out—if a customer can defer an alert with a casual thumb-swipe without even looking at the smart watch—that starts to sound genuinely useful. With properly designed retail apps, that small convenience could be a big selling point.

Maybe Google Glass really will be the Next Big Thing that your customers will connect to their smartphones. There's a lot that can be done with a head-mounted display (personally, I'm waiting for the dual-display version, so I can watch 3-D movies). Fortunately, your existing apps will probably adapt pretty well to that big virtual screen.

But for a smartphone add-on that will find an everyday, practical use in mobile commerce? The smart money is on the watch.