Most people remember the first time they saw an iPhone. With the casual flick of a finger, the front page of the New York Times raced over the screen, you could turn it horizontally and view pictures instantly in landscape, and then you could go back to vertical and scroll through the internet in all of its lush multimedia. No keyboard, no barrier. The utilitarian and functional mobile phone had been made fluid and even elegant. Apple previewed it in January 2007 in a now immortal keynote address delivered by the iconic Steve Jobs. He started his talk by telling the anxious and excited crowd that he had three devices to preview that day, “a widescreen iPod with touch controls, a revolutionary mobile phone and a breakthrough Internet communicator”. The crowd was in love with Steve and everyone in the auditorium that day embraced a sense of communal giddiness as he casually worked through the first few slides. As Jobs spoke and advanced in the talk, they slowly realized the three products he introduced were actually the same thing. He was talking about one product; iPhone. I personally believe history will view it as one of the most brilliant moments in the history of American commerce.
It was a breathtaking spectacle. Then we had to wait six months.
The original iPhone was released in June of that year. It was a device that would change everything, and many at the time sensed it, but we had to wait six long months from when we saw Steve play with it onstage to actually hold one in our hand and flick at the screen for ourselves.
When we consider it now, it is easy to think of the iPhone as bursting on the scene that June and dominating the mobile phone market almost from the very beginning. However, the fact is the original iPhone only sold six million units in its entire lifetime. Apple should sell it’s one billionth iPhone handset this year. That is an amazing feat to comprehend when you think about the original model selling “only” six million.
Fast forward to 2016, and we have the announcement yesterday from Oculus, the breakthrough virtual reality company determined to bring premium virtual reality to the consumer masses. Their flagship product, the Rift, is now open for pre-orders and will ship on March 28th, with a limited retail drop in April.
It was three and a half years ago when a then 19 year old named Palmer Luckey, founder of Oculus, strode onstage at Quakecon and demonstrated an Oculus Rift and set the tech world abuzz about the realistic possibility of widely available virtual reality. Two years later, Facebook acquired Oculus for two billion dollars and we have had near constant speculation about the actual product release ever since.
As is known to happen with any announcement of this magnitude, there was certainly a fair share of criticism, with most of it centered around the cost and a perceived lack of apps and content for the device. And while yesterday the chatter was about Oculus, the topics and comments were eerily similar to what we heard following the iPhone announcement nine years ago.
The Oculus Rift has been referred to as the “iPhone of VR”, the comparison owing to the fact that it is a piece of transformative technology that completely transforms, redefines and dominates an entire sector.
Lets take those adjectives in order and look at the Rift.
Is it transformative? Sure. But I’d also suggest we are still trying to figure out exactly what we want virtual reality to be. Is it for gaming, movies, travel, or sports? All of the above? Is there anything proven in any of them?
Does it redefine? It could, but the jury is largely out. Isn’t the world racing to mobile and isn’t this tethered to a premium PC that weighs 65 lbs?
And total domination? That won’t be known for awhile, but it would take quite a surge of enthusiasts to put the Rift over the top when you have a $99 Samsung GearVR (powered by licensed Oculus hardware) product and competition on the way from PlayStation, Microsoft and HTC.
Let’s continue the iPhone comparison. We had seen years and years of smartphone releases preceding the iPhone. If what Apple introduced was extraordinary, it only seemed more so in full context of the other phones that had come and gone before. Steve Jobs seemed to get a unique joy in showing us potential that every other product designer had missed. Isaac Newton, another technological revolutionary that had a history with an apple, albiet in his case of the actual botanical variety, said it best once when talking about his work in relation to Descartes; “What Descartes did was a good step. If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Whether they ever felt like admitting or not, the brilliant design teams at Apple never had a shortage of shoulders to stand on. Steve and team had a decade of smartphone models to design against. It is important to remember that. This isn’t the same point on the product evolution curve in virtual reality as we were in mobile when they launched the iPhone. With virtual reality it still feels like we are hunting around the cave looking for fire.
It feels more similar to the late 90’s when we could sense there was a lot going on with phones. We didn’t know where it would lead-we didn’t know what we wanted a phone to be, but collectively we could sense we were on to something. The Palm Pilot in all of its monochromatic glory was released in 1997, a full ten years before the first iPhone.
At the time of its launch, the iPhone was priced at around $600 US dollars, almost the exact price of the Oculus Rift as we were told in yesterdays pre-order announcement. The criticism of the iPhone at the time was it was too expensive, and felt too premium. People openly wondered if you would be able to do enough with it to justify the price. At that time, Apple was mainly known for high end PC’s and mobile music players. A phone was a commodity, and normally the most expensive ones were the smallest, thinnest, and sleekest. Remember the Razr? Here was Apple, introducing something larger, a little bulkier, and where the talking, as in the phone part of the mobile phone, was almost an after thought.
Perhaps providing as much fuel to the rise of iPhone as anything else was a rapid succession of new models that would be launched, and the intense wave of buzz each model carried with it. As we said, the original sold 6 million total. We are now, 9 years later, approaching one billion total handsets sold and 350 million daily iOS users. But, it took time to get to that type of critical mass. For example, Apple sold 75 million iPhones in Q1 of 2015, however, it took almost 4 years to sell the first 75 million in total.
More than anything, the iPhone has had staying power, channeled over years of building momentum. Not the same story for Palm. The iPhone transformed an industry, built momentum, and then it has transformed itself several times over.
Oculus and their treatment of the Rift feels different. There is a difference between a revolution and an introduction. The iPhone was a revolution. As for yesterday with the Rift, well, the only thing they could have done to make the introduction more sterile is to have had a generic “Hello, My Name Is _____” sticker on the front of it.
The intense buzz around the Rift is almost in spite of anything the folks at Oculus have done to relate to an excited public. Yesterday, one of the biggest days in their companies history, they essentially issued a press release. It felt like they took one more necessary step in the long march they have had towards selling premium consumer facing virtual reality. But rather than making it fun and memorable, Oculus seemed more determined to check a box. They were clear with their actions. Acting like a freshman getting a B- in Comp I, this was one more required step on their journey. They had news to communicate but felt little need to celebrate.
There was no visionary founder strolling a stage giving us sage words about how this changes the world. No revolution, and little in the way of transformation. Sadly, the only surprise for most was the price which was higher than what was previously telegraphed. After scanning what was issued for price details, we were left to read a blog post explaining the premium PC specs we needed to secure to be able to properly use the technology. It resembled more how Palm announced the Pilot back in 1997. They essentially said, “Here is what we have, here is what it will cost, and here is what you’ll need to have to be able to take full advantage.” It felt like a necessary and important step. But a revolution? It is hard to lead a revolution by press release. A press release is what you use to introduce something.
I’d suggest Oculus isn’t the iPhone of virtual reality. It’s Palm. History will view it as a building block, an entry point to the concept, and the only question is how quickly the market views it as such. That realization is often the death blow for those that go first.
You want the iPhone-the truly transformative life altering can’t do without amazing tech for virtual reality? Well, if you think you’ve waited long thus far for the Oculus Rift, you might just wait a few more years like we had to wait between the Palm and iPhone.
The distinction is where we are in the product evolution. There is a distinct advantage to breaking the mold and being first to market. But the true transformation comes later. Jobs and his brilliance were inextricably linked to the uncanny ability to feel discontinuous from what came before. He was brilliant at it, but by its nature, it’s a second order phenomenon. Whether it was PC’s , MP3 players, or smartphones, Apple always let the true mavericks race a product to market. Then Apple would confidently stroll in right behind to simply show us how foolish those initial products really were. Someone, somewhere is working on virtual reality hardware to do just that.
Make no mistake, the team at Oculus casts a long shadow, and as a technology company, it is one of the longest shadows we have ever seen. When it finally happens, and someone comes to stand on their shoulders, it will be a long climb up indeed. It will take awhile, but it will happen and it will be worth it. The view they will have from way up there will be amazing. And what they give us in return, well, it will make virtual reality feel new all over again.