The approach taken by GE and Cree differs from that of Phillips and Switch. Both of those companies have bulbs mimicking the classic shape and are bringing down costs for bulbs, but they also have high-end LED bulbs that can be compared to the difference between a Toyota Prius and Tesla Model S.
"I think the design has to be consumer-friendly, but my definition might be a little different," said Manegold at Philips. "Mass adoption will be triggered by light effect that people recognize at a price they will pay for. In my house, the effect is far more important than the shape ... and I think consumers recognize that."
McGowan of the American Lighting Association said Phillips has been "carefully treading the line between appearance and function" and has managed to make LED lighting interesting, even if it can be argued that won't be the quickest route to mass adoption.
Mark Costigliola, managing director of Advanced Lumonics and EarthLED.com, said that for Philips, there is an element of "personal pride" in the design and a European aesthetic that may not translate as easily to the U.S. consumer market.
"They [Phillips] want to create a vision for what a new bulb should look like," he said. "They want to drive LED design." That contrasts with more parochial approach of GE, which does not aim to be groundbreaking, he added.
Advanced Lumonics has a museum with two examples of every LED bulb ever made, a kind of Noah's Ark of LED history, including "corncob" and "snowcone" designs. The "scrapped" designs of LEDs' early days also include external "fins" used as an approach to the heat sink issues, and colored phosphor coatings over the bulb exterior as an approach to light diffusion—LEDs by nature emit light in one direction, while a residence typically requires an omni-directional lighting source.
Costigliola said Cree wants most to make a bulb with the Edison shape, and that the company's sales data may show that for mass adoption to take place, the standard shape needs to be a big part of the equation.
"The Cree bulb isn't a show-off," he said, compared with a higher-priced Switch "liquid-cooled" bulb, or a Philips' Wi-Fi-enabled Hue bulb or LED lighting fixture—the latter costing several hundred dollars. Though he stressed that price remains king: When Philips lowered the price on its yellow phosphor-coated LED bulbs, a technical solution Philips has since moved away from in newer designs, EarthLED.com saw a bump in orders, able to "move 4,000 a month on Amazon."
McGowan said that it's easy to lose sight of the historical fact that no light source ever invented has completely disappeared.
"The Amish have nothing but kerosene lamps in their living rooms," he said. "The consumer can't be dictated to in lighting, and the faux old-fashioned bulbs with carbon filaments that glow are very popular now. It's appearance lighting, not efficient lighting."
"LEDs won't take over 100 percent of the market. All these technologies will exist, but comfort level will dictate how much adoption there is, and if you make it familiar it accelerates the comfort level," he said.
—By Eric Rosenbaum, CNBC.com