My introduction to business was fairly prosaic. Thirty years ago a triumvirate of largely unemployable dirtbags who liked to spend their time mountain biking, climbing and tramping came together to build what was then the very nascent idea of Cactus Outdoor. Fast forward to today and the same business employs 100 people and makes the toughest workwear and outdoor equipment on earth.
Back when Cactus started, business was pretty simple. You made a product and hopefully someone would want to buy it. Assuming they did, the money they paid would build a couple more products and, just like that, a business was created. Of course it’s not all plain sailing and supply chain issues, cash flow constraints, the joys of recalcitrant staff and the other swings and arrows of outrageous business fortune came to bear. Notwithstanding the odd hurdle, business back in those days. at least for us, was a simpler affair.
I’ve been thinking of the joys of simple business recently and even more so after reading the news the other day and seeing the announcement that Microsoft, home of Windows, Office and Clippy, was entering a strategic partnership with Meta, the home of Facebook, Instagram and, sadly, conspiracy theories.
This partnership will see Microsoft integrate its Teams product portfolio into Meta’s new Quest Virtual Reality (VR) headset. For those who don’t spend their lives in the minutiae of the technology industry, a quick recap: Facebook (the company) has seen growth stall as its three main franchises, Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp run out of human beings to convert into new users.
Seeing these headwinds in the near future, the company decided to rename itself Meta and to double (and triple) down on investments in the Metaverse. Metaverse is, of course, the sort of term that makes normal people scratch their heads and wonder about those in the technology industry, but suffice it to say that the Metaverse is a future virtual reality world. Meta’s hypothesis is that the near future will see us all engage with friends and family, learn new skills and transact much of our work lives in the privacy of utter isolation but while wearing a VR headset that will make us feel warm, cozy and connected to others.
Now readers might, for a moment, have to ignore the very obvious fact that over the past two years we have all been physically isolated by Covid, yet virtually connected through Zoom, Hangouts or Teams. At the same time, the world has seen an absolute pandemic of mental health distress as individuals crave simple human connection, untethered by devices, dongles or data streams. But in their superior wisdom, our tech overlords have decided that the addition of a VR device will somehow miraculously turn this mental health disaster into something warm, fuzzy and (most importantly) highly profitable.
But I digress…
The interesting thing over the last year or so is that no matter how many billions of dollars have been invested into software and hardware to make VR work, user uptake has been lacklustre at best. Apart from the fact that most VR platforms are buggy, relatively low fidelity and have the uncomfortable side-effect of causing low-level nausea in those using them, the reality is that the use cases that have been posited thus far (which generally revolve around consumer applications – gaming, entertainment, and the like) have not seen any real uptake.
Which is where this partnership comes in. Like it or not, our post-Covid world sees hybrid working as the norm. A huge number of businesses are adopting hybrid work – from home/work in-office approaches or ditching the office together – instead relying on staff collaborating via the various video conferencing platforms.
Take VR headsets and software, which are currently a solution looking for a platform, and a huge shift to virtual working in the business setting and you have a match made in heaven. Organizations already spend a truck load of money on video conferencing, and any product that offers to provide that with a higher level of interaction, efficiency and effectiveness is something that will get customer interested.
And this is where the art of war comes in. Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO and one of the most respected tech leaders on earth, is well aware that Microsoft’s own device, the HoloLens, hasn’t really hit the mark. HoloLens is an augmented reality platform, designed to offer contextual information on top of what the wearer sees in the real world. VR, however, takes that to the next level and offers the wearer an entire experience in a virtual world, hence the Metaverse.
And that is Nadella’s genius. Meta is a company whose share price is tanking. In an effort to do something to ensure the survival of the company he started, CEO Mark Zuckerberg is investing billions of dollars into the Metaverse. His capitulation of admitting that it will be business, rather than consumer, applications that really move the needle on the Metaverse leaves him in a bind. Meta is fundamentally a consumer play and does almost nothing in the enterprise world.
Zuckerberg’s bind is Nadella’s opportunity. Microsoft can rely on Meta to make all the investments needed to build a Metaverse platform, all the while partnering with them to provide the real value – the applications and the customer base. If it works, Microsoft builds a massively valuable franchise on someone else’s plumbing. If it doesn’t work, Microsoft can walk away and it’s Meta who have wasted precious cash and time.
Sun Tzu wrote The Art of War around the 5th century BC. It’s an oldie but a goodie and a book that, I suspect, Nadella has sitting on his bedside table.
Ben Kepes is a Canterbury-based entrepreneur and professional board member. He’s a pacifist but still intrigued about The Art of War.