Like Microsoft, the concept of the metaverse isn’t something new. For decades, the term has circulated amongst tech circles, industry leaders and literature buffs — namely due to popular science fiction lore taken from Neal Stephenson’s 1992 now iconic novel Snow Crash, or Ernest Cline’s much-loved bestseller Ready Player One.
With that being said, the word has become popularised by none other than Facebook tycoon Mark Zuckerberg — who has now devoted a sizeable amount of time and earnings towards repositioning his empire as a metaverse company. This includes the creation of the company’s Reality Labs Division — which has been distinguished as the social media company’s promotion, research and development division for VR and AR initiatives.
While their name isn’t yet quite as synonymous with the metaverse, Microsoft has hopped onto the train and is currently working to marry a host of existing technologies — including VR headsets, personal computers, cloud-connected servers, collaborative software and interactive avatars. In the wake of its highly successful Teams software, the tech giant has introduced its own attempt at establishing a virtual ecosystem with a compatible extension: Microsoft Mesh.
Not long ago, we covered the advantages and disadvantages brought to the table by both Apple and Meta. As part of our ongoing “vs” series, we’re now placing Meta into the ring with its other main competitor — Microsoft. We’ll also take a look at why many experts believe that Microsoft is currently at the forefront of this trail into Web3, as well as what this might spell for Meta’s future.
The world’s most valuable company
Microsoft is the true definition of a household name. Some of us (well, probably many of us) are likely old enough to remember a time when Microsoft’s technology was fresh, novel and in just about everyone’s offices or living rooms.
While many companies have changed our lives through cutting-edge technology, few have been even half as prolific as Microsoft. Having arguably been the company to most successfully popularise home computing, it’s hard to dismiss the seismic impact that Microsoft has made on how our generations have worked, gamed, created and communicated beyond the parameters of physical space.
While up against the higher-end technologies of today and with primary competitors (such as Apple) now also in the ring, Microsoft is sometimes regarded as the slightly more antiquated alternative to other giants (such as Samsung, Sony and NVIDIA). However, when it comes to both enterprise and contemporary consumers, Microsoft has arguably been the best at catering to both. Even from the earliest days, they’ve been masters at accommodating a wider and more diverse customer base (statistics show that Microsoft once held up to 95% of the world market share).
In late 2021, Microsoft passed Apple in market cap. This made it the world’s most valuable publicly-traded company, with a total of $2.49 trillion at market close.
This news was also released right before the tech giant announced its plans to make its successful Teams software metaverse-compatible, instantly positioning it as an adversary of Meta’s Horizon ecosystem. This move also followed Zuckerberg’s announcement and monumental rebranding of Facebook to Meta — with Microsoft also stepping up to the plate to reflect a broader focus on bringing collaborative software and corporate focus into the metaverse.
On Microsoft’s most recent earnings, CEO Satya Nadella has commented:
“As the digital and physical worlds come together, we’re seeing real enterprise metaverse usage. From smart factories to smart buildings to smart cities, we are helping organisations use the combination of Azure, IoT, digital twins and Mesh to help digitise people, places and things in order to visualise, simulate and analyse any business process.”
Like Facebook’s Horizon Worlds, Microsoft Mesh enables face-to-face collaboration in a metaverse setting — with capabilities that will allow users to mingle within shared spaces, collaborate on team projects, send messages and hash out various types of projects (such as documents or presentations) within a collaborative space.
For those that don’t want to rev up the immersiveness, users can instead opt to join typical, Zoom-like meetings while still adopting their custom avatars. It’s the perfect middle ground.
A clash of collaborative titans
So far, both Microsoft and Meta have set out sights to become leaders in providing cutting-edge collaboration software and virtual ecosystems. Moreover, both companies have claimed that their users will be able to create customised avatars that will be able to move freely between different virtual worlds. More specifically, these can include meeting rooms, offices, factories or other “digital twin” settings that mimic the look and feel of real-world environments.
Back in 2017, Microsoft notably acquired the earlier social VR app AltspaceVR to begin distinguishing a mixed reality platform. A Microsoft spokesperson noted that AltspaceVR’s technology: “takes social networks, combines them with real-time experiences and leverages immersive presence to transcend beyond sharing posts to sharing situations.”
At the start of this year, Microsoft launched a slow and steady integration of said avatars into its existing Teams software. To communicate in teams using an avatar, users just simply need to create and select their animated version without an initial need for a VR headset. Microsoft’s built-in AI technology also has the capability to listen to a user’s voice and then animate their avatar in tandem.
By contrast, Meta has throttled into an entirely new and virtual ecosystem that encourages users to collaborate using their Meta Quest 2 headsets and that requires them to have Facebook accounts. Avatars are represented by floating, legless characters — all while the spatial audio technology provided by the Quest 2 helps give users a more immersive and life-like experience.
Overall, Microsoft Teams is backed by an already-existing base of 250 million users — that’s roughly 25 times as many users currently signed up with Meta’s communication software. When coupled with the fact that users aren’t yet required to take extra steps or purchase additional software to utilise the new technology, the more gradualist approach they are giving users is also being viewed as a better way to help them adjust to a more immersive experience.
Will we see Meta’s long-awaited headset take off?
Currently, Microsoft’s headset offering — the HoloLens — has reached a standstill in terms of any plans for a public offering. While earlier reports had suggested that plans for a HoloLens 3 would include creating a new product category for consumers, it appears that this roadmap has tapered off.
Instead, Microsoft has continued an ongoing $480 million contract with the United States Army, which has allowed them to provide soldiers with mixed reality glasses tailored for military use. These devices, referred to as Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS) prototypes, have been engineered to boost soldiers’ ability to “detect, decide and engage before the enemy.” To date, 100,000 HoloLens devices have been provided to military personnel.
Despite its shortcomings, Meta has one very clear edge over Microsoft — it not only has a dedicated VR device at its helm (the best-selling Meta Quest 2), but also plans to launch its highly acclaimed successor — an enterprise-grade headset still currently code-named as Project Cambria.
Project Cambria was first revealed during the Facebook Connect 2021 keynote conference, which addressed a 2022 launch window for the device. Last month, Zuckerberg mentioned that Meta’s upcoming high-end VR headset was still set to launch in 2022. Features set to be included in Project Cambria’s design include enhanced communication capabilities, a special avatar personalisation engine and facial tracking capabilities unforeseen in previous headsets.
Despite massive decreases in market capitalisation since the start of 2022, all systems are still set to go with Project Cambria. Should their higher-end headset be successful with consumers, this could become a win for the tech giant after a long string of losses.
What Microsoft does best: understanding the masses
In all, several experts agree that Microsoft’s metaverse vision appears to be much more realistic when compared to Meta’s. As VR hardware and software haven’t yet been widely adopted by the masses, it’s probably safe to say that both VR and the majority of its new users aren’t ready to take on the metaverse quite yet. Of course, it’s hoped that one day they will be — but like with all new inventions, small and gradual steps tend to make for a greater and more effective learning experience.
Issues such as low latency, VR-induced nausea, high prices and issues concerning privacy are also amongst a long list of contentions that still keep users away from more frequent or dedicated use of XR technology. While 5G technology, motion tracking and more effective data privacy practices will help solve many of these problems, it will also likely take years for them to be perfected.
So far, Microsoft seems to have understood this much better than Meta has. Starting a meeting on a browser in Mesh might seem like a “Web2” way of going about things, but it’s also a great gateway into the metaverse and an approach that’s more likely to stick. Users can get a feel of immersive technology without initially needing to buy a costly headset or another expensive tech setup — which, for starters, makes the onboarding experience much easier than the one currently offered by Horizon Worlds.
If we circle back to the privacy issue, another glaring fact sticks out like a sore thumb: unlike Meta, Microsoft also hasn’t left behind a trail of controversies in its wake. Facebook has developed an indelible reputation for its inconsistent moderation policies, data breaches, continuous violation of user privacy and — most recently — a batch of internal documents that have revealed its greater focus on “growth over safety”.
These facts alone do a great job of leveraging Microsoft, who — on the other hand — are market leaders in data privacy and currently rank second on GlobalData’s Social Media Thematic Scorecard (where Meta currently sits in the 21st spot out of 35 companies overall). As we’ve already seen with Facebook’s declining numbers, compromised privacy doesn’t rank too highly with current users (and particularly younger generations).
In all, Microsoft is focusing more intently on which capabilities are available and which enterprise applications are truly needed by its millions of daily users. And with its current numbers taken into account, Mesh for Microsoft Teams currently has the ability to reach more than eight times the potential number of users when compared to Meta’s.
As Big Tech platforms continue to develop and drive competition, one thing still remains to be seen: whether we will one day see the metaverse become one, singular concept, or whether we will better understand the space as being made up of many different metaverses. Currently, nothing about the metaverse is really standardised — hence why the biggest technology leaders are now vying to be the one to lay down the winning groundwork.
Meta is likely correct in that interoperability will be crucial for all metaverse projects to one day be successful and accessible for everyday use. No one will want to be siloed within any online space, meaning that we’ll eventually need to see an avatar on Teams be compatible with Horizon Worlds — and vice-versa.
While the idea of interoperability may suggest that a single metaverse should eventually be the end goal, this won’t necessarily be the case for quite some time. What’s more likely is that the metaverse will start as a bastion of competing platforms — of course, with each one clamouring to sit on the virtual throne. Think of the Web1 days, where instant messaging platforms were varied and fragmented. Over time, it’s likely we will see Big Tech players create agreed-upon protocols and develop greater standards, leading to something within Web3 that looks more like email protocols.
While Meta’s vision seems to be in line with the futuristic concepts found in popular science fiction literature (see people spending the majority of their time hanging out in virtual spaces), Microsoft is the tech giant that is meeting said standards and paying better attention to user demand — particularly in the areas of remote work, office collaboration and hybrid arrangements in our post-COVID climate. Just like the people that raved over Microsoft Office and early enterprise software in the pre-web days, its probably safe to assume that today’s users also want experiences that won’t just make their lives more immersive, but easier as well.