Oculus-book-gate?

Is it safe to come out yet? So the news came out yesterday that Facebook bought Oculus, the company behind the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, and everyone went crazy. There were demands of refunds from the Kickstarter, and a few well known developers publicly distanced themselves from Oculus.

For some reason, a lot of people took the news pretty badly, and I’m still trying to figure out why. So far, I’ve seen nothing from Oculus which suggest the buyout will change their plans, and they’ve even stated that it won’t. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think it’s what the Rift needed to have any kind of chance of survival.

Look at it this way, the only people I’ve so far seen even mention the Oculus Rift are game developers. Talk to the general public, and the majority haven’t heard of it at all. The way it was going, when it came to launch the consumer version, all the games developers would stick with the development kits, a few PC tech enthusiasts would buy it, but other than that there’d be very few sales.

Meanwhile, Sony has entered the race with their Project Morpheus VR headset for the PS4. I’m not saying they’re guaranteed success with it, it’s just that with an already solid user base, it’ll be a much easier task to get players excited about it. Oculus doesn’t have that user base to work from, so what they needed was someone to provide it. Someone with a product that millions of people use multiple times every day. Someone like Facebook.

Also, how could Oculus hope to compete with Sony when Sony have so much money behind them? It’s an unfortunate fact that you generally need some kind of financial backing to launch a successful product. The $2.5 million that Oculus raised in their Kickstarter campaign might seem like a lot to most, but if you’re trying to launch a whole new market which has already failed to generate consumer interest in the past (yes, we’re looking at you Virtual Boy), you’re going to need a hell of a lot more money than that. And if you’re trying to compete with a huge consumer electronics company like Sony, you’re definitely going to need even more financial backing, which they’re not going to get from selling development kits. You’re going to need someone with a lot of money who’s willing to invest. Someone like, you know… Facebook.

It seems to me that there are a couple of reasons why people reacted badly to the buyout:

People just don’t like Facebook.

This could be a whole blog post in itself, but I’ll sum it up and argue why this shouldn’t be an issue in 3 points:

  • “It’s full of adverts” – Really? Go to Facebook, scroll down your news feed and count how many are actual adverts? I just counted one advert in 11 screens worth of posts. The majority of the adverts are on the right hand side, unobtrusive. Now go to Google and search for something popular. Guess what? Adverts. A couple at the top of your search results, and some down the right hand side. Companies which provide a free service need to generate revenue somehow to survive. That’s why they rely on advertising.
  • “It’s full of Candy Crush invites” – Facebook actively try and prevent spam from games and applications. It’s why they’ve removed them from your news feed – they know that people don’t like it, but they’ve got timelines to work to. The internet hate machine works pretty quickly, but if a company like Facebook reacted so quickly to it, they’d have to be changing their developer platform every day, and no one would be able to keep up. Instead, they take on board people’s views, develop a roadmap of changes, let developers know what’s changing, then do it, all of which takes time.
  • “Privacy!” – Guess what – don’t post things you don’t want to be public knowledge on the internet. Besides that, this is actually another example of Facebook trying to actively fix a problem. It’s why the privacy settings have been updated so much, to find a workable solution which gives the right balance of being easy to use but safe.

Facebook has two major issues to overcome to get people on side. Firstly, they need to get over the stigma of their past mistakes. Yes, they originally put no thought into the whole advertising / app spam / privacy things, but they are now, and they’re getting there. Unfortunately, people still remember all of the past issues, which will take time to get over.

Secondly, for a social platform, they are useless at communicating. Having developed for Facebook for a number of years now, I know this is true on the developer side. It’s pretty much impossible to find or communicate with any of the Facebook development team, and there was a history of things just randomly being changed with their API. It’s a bit better now, but still hard to track down information. From a consumer side, they really need to give people clear and concise information before they make big changes to their site. They do have a tendency to spring major updates on people.

Kickstarter backers feel like they’ve just invested in Facebook.

One of the advantages of crowd funding is also one of the major drawbacks when you’re creating a new company using it. You’re building a community around your product, and that community is investing not only financially in your company, but also emotionally. This is great for any company, and having the support of so many people is arguably more important than the actual money raised at the early stages of a company, but then your company starts growing, and the way it is run needs to change.

Unfortunately, Kickstarter backers aren’t shareholders, they don’t have a say in how the actual company is run, but emotionally investing in something and seeing it grow because of your support can make you feel like you should. Ultimately though, Oculus needed a large power behind it in order to have any kind of fighting chance, and Facebook turned up at the right time. Without it, Oculus would have struggled to survive and probably just faded into obscurity.

It’s a tough choice to make, but given the options of ensuring the security of the team and the project or struggling on and having to make redundancies and eventually close down, I think I know which option I’d pick.

So that’s the way I see it. Agree, disagree or don’t care? Let me know on Twitter: @f8k8