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Meta’s Horizon OS Aims to Scale, Speed App Development for XR Segment

Meta's Horizon OS Aims to Scale, Speed App Development for XR Segment

The News: Meta is opening the operating system (OS) powering its Meta Quest devices to third-party hardware makers and introducing Meta Horizon OS, a new hardware ecosystem that will run the mixed reality OS that powers Meta Quest headsets. Read the press release here.

Meta’s Horizon OS Aims to Scale, Speed App Development for XR Segment

Analyst Take: Meta’s announcement follows a trend among technology platform giants to open up their ecosystems to a broader pool of developers, to both scale faster (an adoption and usage play) and accelerate the development of solutions and experiences for those platforms. larger ecosystem for developers to build for. And while Meta shouldn’t feel particularly concerned about competition from other XR platforms displacing it anytime soon, XR adoption has remained somewhat disappointing thus far. Aside from gaming, healthcare, and industrial use cases, XR headset and glasses have not quite penetrated the mainstream yet, a pain point in Meta’s strategy.

There is no one reason why XR as a category, which incorporates VR (virtual reality), MR (mixed reality), AR (augmented reality) and smart glasses, hasn’t quite taken off yet with mainstream technology users, despite considerable improvements in capabilities and UX in recent years, the way that other technologies have – like tablets, smart watches, and generative AI – but we can infer that the general lack of interest in XR products can be boiled down to a value proposition problem: Does the cost of an XR device and associated software and apps justify its utility to users? For many gamers, the answer is a resounding yes, and XR OEMs have found strong additional niches already, ranging from military and healthcare applications to design-engineering, training/education, and industrial maintenance. For mainstream technology users, however, adding one more device to an already full device ecosystem (phone, PC, tablet, watch, BT headphones, etc.) needs to make sense. It cannot just be an occasionally fun gadget. It must be useful in some way, preferably on a daily basis, and ideally indispensable in the same way that these other devices are.

The question plaguing mainstream XR adoption has always been “why?” Why should I spend $300-$4,000 on an XR headset? Let’s face it, no one needs an XR headset to watch a movie, or play a video game, or get on a Teams call, or answer emails, or scroll through social media content. XR doesn’t, for most consumers, solve an immediate problem or in any meaningful way simplify or improve their lives. They can also be used to perform these tasks, but they don’t revolutionize them in any meaningful way, or simplify them, or enhance the experience. At least not yet. One might even argue that it is more of an inconvenience than a benefit: More gear to carry, more weight in the bag, and one more thing to have to charge, to say nothing of how ergonomically and socially contentious many of these face-worn devices still are.

For Meta and its XR OEM partners, the problem isn’t really about hardware, which is already impressive and promises to get better, faster, lighter and cooler every year. The real problem is that there just isn’t enough utility or value built into the experience of owning an XR device (let alone several different devices for different use cases). This challenge had been the proverbial elephant in the room for XR, and specifically for Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse pitch before the company’s pivot to generative AI last year: As nice as it all sounded, mainstream technology users weren’t asking for a metaverse or VR avatars and meeting spaces, which solved no discernible problem for technology users. Assuming anyone not already into XR for gaming or niche applications even bought into Zuckerberg’s vision, there simply weren’t enough apps and solutions to keep XR devices from ending up collecting dust on a shelf somewhere after just a few weeks of use.

As we have recently observed in the generative AI space, the answer to injecting more utility and value into an emerging ecosystem is to open it up to as many developers as possible so that innovation can find the kind of scale and velocity that platform vendors and OEMs alone cannot deliver. What Meta just did was exactly that. Third-party developers and OEMs will now have a much easier time creating the solutions and experiences that will give potential XR device users reasons to buy and use them, and a simpler way to monetize their efforts.

On App Stores, Platforms, Access, and Competition

Developers and creators will have access to the custom frameworks and tooling Meta has built for creating MR experiences and will have the ability to “reach their communities and grow their businesses through the content discovery and monetization platforms built into the OS,” the company said. To that end, the Meta Quest Store will now be called the Meta Horizon Store, and the Horizon social layer currently powering Meta Quest devices will extend across the new ecosystem so that user identities, avatars, and friend groups will be portable across virtual spaces to let developers integrate rich social features into their apps. This social layer is designed to bridge multiple platforms across mixed reality, mobile, and desktop devices.

Meta confirms that Horizon OS devices will use the same mobile companion app that Meta Quest owners use today, although renamed Meta Horizon app. The company has also begun the process of removing barriers between the Meta Horizon Store and App Lab, to let any developer who meets basic technical and content requirements ship software on the platform. App Lab titles should soon be featured in a dedicated section of the Store on all Meta devices to make them more discoverable to broader audiences. (Some of the most popular apps on the Store today, like Gorilla Tag and Gym Class, began on App Lab, so the strategy tracks.)

Meta also announced that they are developing a new spatial app framework to help mobile developers create mixed reality experiences: “Developers will be able to use the tools they’re already familiar with to bring their mobile apps to Meta Horizon OS or to create entirely new mixed reality apps,” although developers will have to apply for access.

In a nod to antitrust watchdogs in addition to its app ecosystem acceleration strategy, Meta also pledged to make its app store much more open and give users more choice in how to access apps: “Because we don’t restrict users to titles from our own app store, there are multiple ways to access great content on Meta Horizon OS, including popular game streaming services like Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, or through Steam Link or our Air Link system for wirelessly streaming PC software to headsets.” The announcement even got a bit cheeky about it by addressing a competitor directly: “And we encourage the Google Play 2D app store to come to Meta Horizon OS, where it can operate with the same economic model it does on other platforms.” Points for style on that one.

Meta’s theory of the case, that “the Future of Mixed Reality Consumers and developers alike stand to benefit the most from an ecosystem where multiple hardware makers build on a common platform,” isn’t just smart business, it also doubles as an effective opening statement should any overzealous antitrust regulator be tempted to go after Meta’s app store in the way that it has gone after Apple’s and Google’s. Clever.

On the Expansion of Meta’s Hardware Ecosystem Through Ecosystem Partnerships

Meta also more than hinted at a new generation of hardware in the ecosystem pipeline:

“The growth of the mixed reality market and the rising popularity of use cases like gaming, entertainment, fitness, productivity, and social presence have created new opportunities for specialized hardware,” the company said. “As we’ve seen with the PC and smartphone industries, consumers are best served by a broad hardware ecosystem producing both general-purpose computing devices and more specialized products, all running on a common platform. Leading global technology companies are already working on new devices built on Meta Horizon OS.”

Unsurprisingly, some familiar names immediately bubbled up, like Xbox, Lenovo and Asus, but also Qualcomm: You may recall that Xbox and Meta teamed up last year to bring Xbox Cloud Gaming (Beta) to Meta Quest, letting people play Xbox games on a large 2D virtual screen in mixed reality. This time around, Meta and Xbox will be releasing a limited-edition Meta Quest, inspired by Xbox. Lenovo, for its part, will draw on its experience co-designing Oculus Rift S, as well as its deep expertise in engineering leading devices like the ThinkPad laptop series, to develop mixed reality devices for productivity, learning, and entertainment. (This XR for PC UX approach is one I hope to dive a bit deeper soon, so keep an eye out for that.) ASUS’s Republic of Gamers will also use its expertise as a leader in gaming solutions to develop an all-new performance gaming headset.

“Mixed reality is transforming how people interface with computers by integrating digital experiences and physical spaces to reach new levels of productivity, learning and play,” explained Yuanqing Yang, Chair & CEO, Lenovo. “Building from our past successful partnership, Lenovo is bringing together Meta Horizon OS with our leadership and innovation in personal computing to accelerate adoption of new user scenarios in mixed reality like virtual screens, remote presence, content consumption, and immersive training.” S.Y. Hsu, Co-CEO of ASUS added “we’ve been inspired by the incredible gaming community that has formed around virtual and mixed reality, and we know that the most passionate gamers want high-performance hardware. With Meta Horizon OS, ASUS and Republic of Gamers will build the gaming headset of the next generation.”

Meta’s announcement also underscored its often-understated partnership with Qualcomm: “All of these devices will benefit from our long-term collaboration with Qualcomm Technologies, Inc., which builds the Snapdragon® processors that are tightly integrated with our software and hardware stacks.” In case you haven’t been following this topic closely, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon XR platform powers most of Meta’s devices (the Snapdragon XR2 Gen 2 Platform powers the Meta Quest 3), and so companies building hardware for Meta’s new ecosystem will be able to leverage specialized Snapdragon chipsets and the custom software enhancements they enable. Solid nod to an indispensable technology partner. “The convergence of physical and digital spaces is accelerating, and we see virtual reality, mixed reality, and augmented reality becoming the next computing platform,” Cristiano Amon, President and CEO of Qualcomm, explained. “To enable this future, these high-performance devices require an entirely new class of Snapdragon processors. Our collaboration with Meta has produced extraordinary experiences that have become the benchmark of the industry, and we’re excited to see this new ecosystem taking shape.”

Additional Considerations

This is a great move for Meta, and one that should help bring both scale and velocity to the XR app ecosystem, which in turn, assuming that talented, imaginative developers will find it easier and more financially rewarding to make full use of Meta’s developer sandbox, bring much needed innovation, value, purpose and coolness to the segment, and create the kind of utility and value that will give XR headsets and smart glasses the kind of mainstream appeal that will jumpstart the segment’s growth.

Two aspects of this ecosystem expansion that I will be keeping a very close eye on are the divergence between personal (consumer) apps, and professional (enterprise) apps, and how XR apps will attempt to reconcile and homogenize mobile and PC experiences.

Lenovo sits at the heart of these two questions and finds itself in a unique position to bridge those gaps through enhanced interoperability and create a sort of better-together ecosystem value for its full spectrum of users: the enterprise PC user segment and the consumer PC segment, as well as PC users and mobile users (Motorola). And yes, this would put Lenovo in an enviable position to compete more organically against Apple in the Mobile-PC-XR space, not only in the consumer space but in the enterprise as well – a discussion that may increase in relevance in the next 24-36 months. Note that Samsung enjoys a similar opportunity, although more naturally steered towards consumer segments than the enterprise for now.

Interestingly, next-gen AI PCs built on Qualcomm’s upcoming Windows-on-Arm Arm-based X-Elite platform (scheduled for release starting this summer) could also inject some interesting interoperability on-ramps for PC and Mobile OEMs, or at least an opportunity for device OEMs to simplify UX homogenization between Windows PCs and Android devices. That will be a market segment to watch as well starting in 2025.

Disclosure: The Futurum Group is a research and advisory firm that engages or has engaged in research, analysis, and advisory services with many technology companies, including those mentioned in this article. The author does not hold any equity positions with any company mentioned in this article.

Analysis and opinions expressed herein are specific to the analyst individually and data and other information that might have been provided for validation, not those of The Futurum Group as a whole.

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Author Information

Olivier Blanchard has extensive experience managing product innovation, technology adoption, digital integration, and change management for industry leaders in the B2B, B2C, B2G sectors, and the IT channel. His passion is helping decision-makers and their organizations understand the many risks and opportunities of technology-driven disruption, and leverage innovation to build stronger, better, more competitive companies.  Read Full Bio.

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