Google Glass gets a new boss, the man behind the iPod and Nest

The search giant is tapping Tony Fadell, who worked at Apple and co-founded the Nest thermostat company, to oversee its connected-eyewear project.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
4 min read

Google bought Nest, co-founded by Tony Fadell, for $3.2 billion last year. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Tony Fadell has an impressive track record: He helped turn Apple's iPod music player into a cultural icon, then he kick-started consumer interest in smart-home technology with his Nest Internet-connected thermostat.

Now, Google's asking him to oversee its Glass project.

The company on Thursday said Fadell will be taking over Glass, following its development at the Google X research lab. Under him will be Ivy Ross, a former fashion executive who took over the Glass project in May.

Fadell plans to provide "direction and support" to Ross and her team, he said in a statement. What they have learned will also be spread into other Google projects, he added. "Early Glass efforts have broken ground and allowed us to learn what's important to consumers and enterprises alike."

Glass was announced in 2012 in a massive San Francisco auditorium, worn by skydivers who used the device to videotape their landing on the roof. That dramatic reveal gave way to jokes, confusion and wonder about who would even buy such a thing.

Privacy advocates have cried foul over its included camera; culture critics have coined the term "Glasshole" for overly enthusiastic wearers of the device.

Fadell, whose products are associated with hip, cool and swank lifestyles, could change all that, analysts say.

"He's great at taking genre-defining products and turning them into successes in the marketplace," said Brian Blau, an analyst at the research firm Gartner. "Putting it under Tony is going to give them the best shot at making a go of it."

Fadell will continue to run Nest as well.

From Apple's 'one in a million' product to Glass

Fadell came to Google as part of the company's $3.2 billion buyout of Nest in February. At the time, many industry insiders believed Google was attempting to fortify its credentials in the hardware business. Putting Fadell, a world class designer, in charge of Glass is something of a statement from Google, which has faced questions of waning support for Glass as the device has been scorned by the public.

Google has good reason to bring out the big guns for Glass. Wearables -- devices from Glass to smartwatches to fitness trackers -- are poised to become big business. By 2018, shipments of wearables will surpass 100 million units, an almost sixfold increase from 2014, according to research firm IDC.

In just a few short years, competition has become red-hot. Startups like Fitbit are churning out devices for wrists and waists, Apple is planning to release a watch sometime this year and even Facebook has spent $2 billion on a company that makes a virtual-reality headset.

Google has gone from leading the pack with its Glass announcement to hopeful competitor, as it prepares an eventual consumer launch.

Google will stop selling the initial version of Glass on January 19, as it winds down its "Explorer" program, which the company used as both a testing ground and a way for the general public to get used to being around people wearing the technology. A new and improved version of Glass is expected later this year.

One of Google's biggest challenges will be to answer the cultural questions the device raises. Privacy advocates have been wary of the device's ability to record and take pictures of people without their consent. The entertainment industry has also expressed concern, with the Motion Picture Association of America in October banning wearables like Glass from movie theaters.

It's also unclear who will ultimately want such a device. Google has recently sought interest beyond the consumer market, working with employers to bring Glass to the workplace. Companies like computer maker Hewlett-Packard and fast-food giant KFC have begun testing the device.

Google will stop selling the initial version of Glass on January 19. CNET

For Google, the stakes are even higher. All but a sliver of its revenue and profit come from its search and advertising business, which have become dominant forces on the Internet. But Google wants to find something more, and has funded efforts ranging from office productivity software to self-driving cars in a search for the next big thing.

Google hopes Glass could be just that, and there are few people more qualified than Fadell to bring the product to market. Fadell made his name by running Apple's iPod division. Though it was not the first digital music player, the device became one of the most successful consumer products ever made, catapulting a then tiny Apple to become one of the largest companies in the world.

"The iPod was one-in-a-million," Fadell said last year. "Products just don't come around like that often."

Now he has a chance to repeat that success.