Saturday, March 29, 2014

Oculus, Facebook, and the dreaded "Ecosystem"

It's taken me several days to get over my knee-jerk, emotional, Vader-esque "NOOOOO!!!" response regarding Facebook's purchase of Oculus. I wrote up a "Please cancel my DK2 pr-order" email immediately after hearing the news, but resisted hitting the send button because I knew that anything I did at that point would be out of spite and not because I truly no longer believed in the product. Now that I've had some time to think on the matter, though, I feel like I can actually enumerate my concerns pretty clearly.

First off, let's get the bias factor out of the way: I really don't like Facebook. This is a sentiment that I seem to share with much of the internet. While I can honestly say that I admire the technical chops it takes to keep a service of that magnitude running, from a consumer point of view I don't like their product, don't trust their policies, and don't agree with their vision for the future of the internet. The only reason I use it at all is the incredibly stereotypical "because my Mom is on it" and as such it happens to be the most effective means of sending her photos and videos of her Grandson.

Oculus, on the other hand, represented pretty much everything I loved to see in a tech company. Community oriented, incredible talent, ambitious vision, and the type of product that people have been dreaming about for years made real. It also doesn't hurt that John Carmack is one of my personal heroes and someone that I've looked up to ever since I realized that I liked this whole programming thing. In almost every sense they were the classic "little guys" that you just couldn't help but root for.

As such learning that they were being acquired by Facebook was sort of like hearing that Luke Skywalker had decided to join the Empire because he felt like their resources and influence would be massively helpful in spreading the word about the Force and kickstarting that whole "Jedi revival" thing. Not to mention that it's really very hard to reconcile VR with Facebook as we know it. It's all too easy to think that Zuckerberg finished reading "Ready Player One" a few weeks ago, walked into the next board meeting, threw the book on the table and said "I want this!"

But that's the emotional side of me talking. Let's look at things more objectively:

For the sake of argument let's assume that VR does actually "work" this time around. This is something that Facebook can really only affect in a positive way. There are plenty of really stupid things they could do that would kill off Oculus' efforts, but no matter what your feelings on their products you have to admit that Facebook's leadership isn't stupid. No, if VR is going to flop it will be because the public, already wary of tech like Google glass, soundly rejects the idea of wearing these weird goggles as anything but a curiosity for super-geeks. That's a danger no matter who's name the HMD has stamped on it.

Having Facebook's cash to back up the hardware production will undoubtedly be a positive thing. The Oculus crew can now get access to better parts an reduce manufacturing costs. This comes across to us as consumers/developers as cheaper headsets, better headsets, or both! Hard to argue with that.

There's also the question of exposure. A week ago the name "Oculus Rift" was one that was only well known within the tech world. Facebook, though, is pretty mainstream. It will be a while before the concept of VR worms it's way into the day-to-day discussions of your average Joe, but having Facebook's name attached will increase visibility in ways that very few other companies could achieve (Apple, Google, and maybe Comcast are probably the only others that could compete in terms of public perception.) This is only a bad thing if you're the type of hipster that complains when your favorite unknown band becomes popular.

I know that a lot of people immediately jumped on the idea of the Rift becoming overwhelmed with ads or turning into a tool to report your every head movement back to Facebook's servers for some sort nefarious purpose. I don't think either of these scenarios are particularly realistic. Facebook will probably build a Second Life-ish social app in the not-to-distant future, and within those virtual halls all bets are off. Otherwise I seriously doubt that there's going to be an integrated Ads circuit in the device, and constantly reporting head jitter to the mothership would add too much latency to be practical. :)

(Oh, and for the record I'm also not terribly sympathetic with the Kickstarter backers who complain they didn't get a piece of the $2B purchase price. What did you think you were paying for? I donated enough to get a T-shirt. Shortly thereafter I got a T-shirt. No complaints on that front.)

In my opinion the real cause for concern is something that CliffyB hinted at it a recent blog post:
"More importantly, they needed an ecosystem. IF their system is going to be (hopefully) a dedicated system instead of a (ugh) peripheral they need their version of whatever the app store would be. Your device is only as good as the store and community around it;"
On one point he's absolutely right: Developers need their apps to be discoverable and they need ways to let users pay for them. If that comes with a community or similar perks all the better! So yes, the Rift needs an app store. If you ask me I want that app store to be Steam. I've already got a huge investment in Valve's marketplace and they've built up a lot of trust from the gaming community. Give me a tab in their store where I can browse VR-enabled titles and I'm set. But just because I want to use the Steam store doesn't mean I want it to be the only option. I want to see VR-enabled titles on Origin and the Windows Marketplace and the Apple Store and GOG and all the rest of them. And sure, there will be Titanfall-like exclusives for some stores, but that choice would be in the developer's hands.

But CliffyB didn't say "app stores." He said "store." And "dedicated system." And *shudder* "ecosystem." And this is my big, huge, overriding worry. That the decision makers at Facebook, already obsessed with their walled garden and eager to show investors the benefit of their $2 billion dollar oddity, will decree from on high that the Rift is no longer a PC peripheral but a Platform. And henceforth anything going in or out of it passes by the Facebook tollbooth first for a mere industry-standard 30% cut.

I would love to say this sounds silly. And for anyone already familiar with the state of the Rift it should seem absurd. It's feels like Logitech announcing that they're going to build a DRM-laden app store around their new mouse. But we're living in a post-iPhone world, where nobody seems too particularly worried that Apple actively bans apps which have the gall to link to pages which may possibly link to other pages where people might give other people money without giving Apple a cut. In fact, investors seem to adore this type of totally developer/consumer antagonistic behavior, and have made Apple the most valuable company in the world because of it. It's easy to see the siren's call of the closed ecosystem from the point of view of the megacorp: "I get a huge cut of everyones profits and I can control what people run on the device, banning competitors products on a whim? Sign. Me. UP!"

For the users and developers, though, there's nothing but negatives to be had here. As a developer I now not only have no option but to give up potential profits to the store curator (and possibly pay for a development license), but I'm also completely dependent on a third party that could care less about my little indie studio for promotion within the store. Assuming, that is, that they let it in at all. This takes apps about potentially sensitive subjects largely off the table, because the store owner is a huge company that's trying to (legitimately) protect it's reputation. It amounts to a high-level form of censorship. And none of that is far fetched at all because it's happening on iOS right now.

The need to pass through a gatekeeper may also discourage developer experimentation, which is incredibly negative for a new tech like this one. In order for VR to really succeed it needs it's Mario, Doom, or Minecraft moment. That killer app that people just "get". The type of thing that you call your friends over because they've just "got to try this", and having done so they then run home and figure out how they can get it themselves. I've heard a few times now the point that Minecraft couldn't have started on the Xbox because the politics surrounding how indies get a game on the console is just too complex. A tightly controlled ecosystem could have the same effect on VR.

And should Facebook create a walled VR garden and if it succeeds, there are of course sure to be competitors that crop up around it. And since it's a proven model they'll all have their own closed ecosystems too. (See: Windows 8 and to a lesser extent Android) Now the consumer gets screwed, because they started off with a FaceRift but got creeped out when the terms of services started talking about pupil scanning and so they want to get an Apple iSight instead. But, of course, this involves not only leaving behind the old hardware but all the apps you bought for it and all the account details that were associated with it and oh so many in-app purchases...

(To be clear: I don't object at all to Facebook having an app store for the Rift. I think it's pretty much a given, and would actually view it as a positive thing. I am very concerned about them having the only app store for the Rift.)

What's best for users, of course, is the peripheral that CliffyB finds so distasteful. Given some reasonable standards (even if just defacto) that the various HMDs all work with and developers can build against it no longer becomes a choice of "Which ecosystem do I commit to" but "What combination of hardware/software works for me?" I want my purchase of a FaceRift to be based on the fact that it's got a higher resolution and lower latency than the Razer Vizor, and because I don't care about that product's automatic IPD calibration. Let the choice of whether I punch my credit card into Steam for Half Life 3 or Origin for Titanfall 2 be a separate issue.

So what it really comes down to, the reason I find the acquisition upsetting, is this: The Rift will be the first product of it's kind to market. That means they're currently making up the rules that all of their future competitors will be playing by. I was okay with Oculus writing the "how to monetize VR" handbook because of their heritage. John Carmack is, after all, one of the most vocal open source advocates in the game industry. I trust that team to do what's right for users. I don't trust Facebook to do the same, and I challenge you to provide me with evidence to the contrary. And as much as I believe that the Oculus team will still fight on behalf of the users should this subject come up the fact is that they don't get to make that decision anymore. That's what happens when somebody buys you for $2 billion dollars: You do what they tell you to, even if you disagree.

For my part, I ultimately decided that I trust the Oculus team to try and do the right thing for developers enough not to cancel my DK2 order. After all, Facebook can't possibly build a wall around that garden in time for July shipments. I'm going to be watching their next steps very closely, however, and if there ever comes a point where I need to start logging in with a Facebook developer ID in order to download the SDK I'm walking away and never looking back.