🔮 Sunday commentary: the metaverse isn’t, in general, magic

Today’s Sunday Commentary is open to members of Exponential View only, but you’re welcome to forward the edition to your friends, colleagues and family.

I’m asked about the metaverse a great deal. It is one of the hot technology topics du jour. I’ve spoken to dozens of people involved in the metaverse, and some of these conversations have made it to the podcast, including with Nick Clegg, Mike Schroepfer, Amy Wu, Ronit Ghose and David Chalmers.

So I now want to share the current state of my thinking.

There are too many parts of the metaverse ecosystem that don’t yet work or are unproven which means that too much about the final dynamics (of use cases, of industry structure, of device format) are currently unknown and unknowable. Outside of games, some popular like Roblox and others fading in popularity (like many NFT-based pay-to-earn games), applications remain niche. Absent a large-scale burning pain, niches may proliferate but a large market might not emerge.

The closest technology analogy to the metaverse’s current state that I can think of is General Magic. General Magic spun out of Apple in 1990 to build a universal communicator, a personal object, that we could use for calling people, sending messages, enjoying media and buying things electronically. It was fanciful then, but merely quotidian now.

I first came across General Magic in 1994, on reading an essay in Wired magazine: the “hot startup [includes] a team of code wizards, hardware ninjas, and telecom adepts in a quest no less ambitious than the Mac: a digital communications platform that will change everyone's life.”

Failure… or not

General Magic failed in its goals. It struggled to deliver on its hardware ambitions. It pivoted: toying with a voice-based assistant and then delivering an operating system for other manufacturers, like Sony. A 1995 IPO in the run-up to the dotcom bubble netted the company (gasp) $96m. In 2000, a new management team tried the classic consumer tech Hail Mary, the pivot to enterprise. That too failed and the firm was dead by 2004.

The Sony Magic Link released in 1994 used General Magic’s MagicCap operating system

Simply put, the trifold support that a new technology platform needs didn’t exist. The market wasn’t ready. The technologies weren’t mature. And, as Tony Fadell (one of the team members) told me on the podcast “[There were] only two [types of] customers out there and that was less than 1% market share.”

But General Magic incubated or inspired several technologies which we now enjoy.

According to Electronics Weekly, the firm “developed a precursor of USB, software modems, small touchscreens, touchscreen controller Ics, ASICs, multimedia email, networked games, streaming TV and early e-commerce notions.”

And today’s iPhones encapsulate many of the company's key ideas. The General Magic communicator lives on.

Today’s metaverse has some parallels with General Magic.

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