As Microsoft missed mobile, Meta will miss headsets

Epochs in computing are shaped by the winners; Apple and Google in the mobile era. Evaluating the cultures of aspiring competitors in technology’s next generation can help us understand how they aim to shape the next decade of computing. Or how their culture may cause them to miss altogether.

In June 2007 Steve Jobs introduced iPhone. A category was defined and the world got a glimpse of the next decade and a half of personal computing. In this period the improvements to personal computers (aka. laptops and desktops) can be most generously defined as incremental. In 2007 the core components for the mobile hardware had been developed and were waiting for an effective team to put the pieces together. We are in the same position today with the next technological S-curve – better computing, marked most obviously by the shift to head mounted displays. Just like Microsoft knew that mobile computing was coming, Meta knows the same about XR. There’s a lot to learn from Microsoft’s mobile miss that will be instructive for Meta’s big bet.

Meta is investing to the tune of $19.2 billion in it’s metaverse product vision in 2023 (~20% of its overall expenses). Meta seems to have slowly come to terms that their initial focus (via Oculus) of games and content was not proving sufficient to drive adoption of a new form factor at scale. Leaked sales figures indicate that nearly 20 million Quest headsets have been sold so far. Lately they have been leaning into their headsets as productivity devices, including announcing a partnership with Microsoft to bring Team and 365 Apps to Quest 2 VR.

Infinite Office was introduced at the Facebook Connect event in 2020. The vision laid out in their advertising is instructive.

What Meta gets right about better computing through XR

  • Head mounted displays offer a route into an immersive computing experience where users can shape their environment to get significantly more done.
  • XR headsets combining pass-through and immersive VR is the ideal form factor. The initial cumbersome headsets should allow users to shift between environmental awareness and on-device focus as needed.
  • XR hardware offers an alternative to multi-monitor set-ups.
  • Input/output for XR will be multi-modal. The user switches between gestures and a keyboard depending on what task they are trying to achieve.

What Meta gets wrong

  • Similar to the Windows Phone, Meta’s culture and history act as a block to evaluating the form factor on its own merits. Breakthrough XR will be adopted first as a pro-tool, but Meta can’t help but pitch a muddled aspirational consumer vision.
  • Form follows function. Much like Jonny Ive’s missteps in his later years at Apple, Meta sets the expectation that form supersedes function not showing any cables or any functional limitations of the headset. Initial XR adoption will be driven in spite of hardware limitations because the immersive user experience will be so compelling. If this is supposed to be a vision of the far future where battery and processor limitations have been overcome then why not use a more ergonomic headset to set out your vision.
  • Messaging is in Meta’s DNA. Mobile style notifications intrude on the user’s flow consistently. Meta’s investments in recreating presence (Horizon Workrooms) is a real opportunity to create a compelling experience unique to the form, but porting an intrusive element of the mobile form factor to XR is reminiscent of the Windows-centric UI patterns of Windows Mobile.
  • The above could all be excused if Meta had used this opportunity to look at the XR UI and reflect on what makes it unique. The skeuomorphic designs of XR monitors as 2D rectangles is indicative of a product that needs some more thought. New categories often succeed because they are 10x better at something, not incremental gains. The winners of the next generation will ask the question – what changes when you add a new dimension to the perspective of the user? Instead Meta opted to recreate the GUI in a 3D space.

Lessons from Microsoft

Meta is driven by Mark Zuckerberg’s desire to own the platform upon which his company exists. This isn’t an irrational desire, based on the upheaval as a result of Apple’s introduction of ATT. Despite having the vision to see where the technology industry is going, Zuckerberg has a much more difficult task than engineering challenges – overhauling the culture of a company.

Steve Ballmer and Microsoft knew mobile was coming and invested accordingly. They were however stuck in a Windows oriented mindset and couldn’t assess what was unique about mobile computing and think from first principles. Microsoft made several disastrous investments and the share price languished for several years until Satya Nadella’s promotion to the top job. It was only then through an appreciation of what was unique about Microsoft that led company to the heights it is operating at today.

Meta’s partnership with Microsoft is an acknowledgement of a mismatch in DNA between the job-to-be-done of the form factor and ability of the company to meet those needs.

Better computers through headsets and XR

People underestimate how essential the medium is to computing. Headsets and XR is a useful shorthand to understand the next S-curve. It is not hardware alone that will drive improvements in computing; improved semiconductors, advances in ML (especially on-device), new i/o affordances and other factors will combine to create better computers. The XR interface is the most obvious cue of the shift and will likely be the definitional factor for the next computing S-curve (like the mobile computer was for accelerating factors such as multi-touch and cellular internet). It is the medium change that causes people to reassess their prior assumptions and has a multiplier effect on the contributing technologies.