The Next Great Platform

I was hyper-critical of VR/AR players last week. My criticism holds true if you look at them from pure business perspective. I don’t think what Google, Facebook etc are doing is bad in entirety. In a world where money is not an issue, I would probably buy what they are offering. The problem is, I am an exception, not the rule. The real world—people outside tech—do not operate like that. Common people buy things to satisfy their needs. That’s where VR/AR tech is running into problems. Nobody actually needs them. We think people’s needs change as technology progresses. They don’t. Needs remain the same. It’s the fulfillment of these needs that change.

It was the basic human need of staying informed that lead Johannes Gutenberg to invent Printing Press back in 1440. Google is satisfying the same need today. Socializing is not something Facebook invented. It was already there. Facebook digitized it. So if you tell someone that there is a $600 toy and it will do something you probably don’t need, most people don’t buy it. That’s what Google, Facebook, and Microsoft are trying to do right now. The VR/AR use cases are not well defined. And unless someone figures out a good use case and makes them slightly less horrible to wear, they will continue to be in TechCrunch headlines. But not more than.

So why do these companies keep talking about a product that’s not of much use? There are a couple of reasons. First, Wall Street expectations. Innovation is not an afterthought in today’s world. It’s your chance for survival. So Wall Street needs to know if you are actually surviving. Second, these companies actually believe that their products, amid half-baked, are world changing. For the most part what makes them believe is their initial success. The belief also comes from working on the product for a long time. It’s human nature that we get attached to the product we are making. That’s not a bad thing unless you stop looking at your product from “what jobs the product will do” lens. Based on your attachment you start to believe that the world outside will get what you get. Rest of the world though, for the most part, is more rational than we expect.

Just to be clear I am not against shipping products early. I think it’s important you do that. Shipping late kills your product before its birth. But you need to nail down the use cases for your product first. Not all but enough. Just saying that it’s the next great platform doesn’t help. Smartphones are the greatest platform we had. And yet if you go back and listen to Steve Jobs talking about it, he actually didn’t promise anything to hint what iPhone eventually became. His proposition was simple.

1. It’s a better phone.
2. It’s an iPod touch.
3. And it’s an Internet Communication device.

While the 3rd point almost entails everything we see around today. There was nothing that Steve bragged a decade ago. Because he probably didn’t know himself1. He just told us three basic functions that his product was better at doing than anything else. Add to that the original iPhone commercials. They did nothing but told us how to do basic stuff on iPhone that matter to most people. That’s it.

So am I pessimistic about VR/AR? No, I don’t think so. I am never pessimistic about any new technology. But I don’t believe technology alone is good enough. More importantly, I don’t think this is the right way to build the next great platform.

When you are building something and publicly brag about it, two things happen. One, you get stigmatized to your instincts and it becomes painfully hard to see the flaws in your product. Two, people know what you are doing. That takes away the surprise and newness if and when you eventually get the product right. I don’t have a birdie to tell me but I strongly believe that this is the reason Apple doesn’t share what they are doing. And hence the articles about they being the least innovative company appear more often. Not only are these articles mostly wrong the reality is actually the other way around. I believe Apple starts experimenting with new things way earlier. It’s just that they don’t show until they know this is something their customers will find useful.

And because it hurts the process.