Apple and Facebook don't have much in common aside from both being very large tech companies based in Silicon Valley. One is the world's most valuable company and the maker of the world's most popular product. The other is the world's largest social media company, and one of the two largest advertising platforms (along with Google).
They have different philosophies about almost everything it seems, especially when it comes to privacy. The companies have been at odds over the past year as Apple has made it harder for Facebook to track users and collect data to feed its advertising machine. Last year, Apple rolled out an update to iOS that required developers to ask permission before tracking users. That change has been devastating to Facebook's business.
Now, Facebook has a new plan, and it looks--at least on the surface--a lot like something Apple would do. It looks that way because Facebook is taking a page directly out of Apple's playbook. The thing is, I don't think this is going to end well. I don't think Facebook is going to beat Apple by trying to copy one of its most effective plays. That's true for every business, by the way.
We'll get to Facebook's announcement in a minute, but first, let's look at how we got here.
You might remember Mark Zuckerberg's metaverse infomercial from last October. "I believe the metaverse is the next chapter for the internet," Zuckerberg said as he explained the company was changing its name to Meta to reflect its focus on building a virtual world where people might go to work or school, or just hang out and watch movies while wearing virtual reality (VR) headsets.
The announcement was mostly met with the exact response you might expect, which is to say, no one is particularly excited about spending all of their time in an even more immersive virtual world controlled by Facebook. "If only people could see how amazing the metaverse will be, they'd be excited about the possibilities" you might argue. Maybe. Or perhaps it's more likely that people just don't want to wear VR headsets all day.
Sure, there are plenty of people who think it's fun to play VR video games. And, to its credit, Oculus, which is owned by Meta, makes some of the best consumer VR headsets available today.
Still, playing a video game for a few hours is different from wearing a headset so that your work Zoom meeting can feel even more immersive, or so that you can sit in a room full of avatars watching a stream of a concert. Most people would rather just do those things in person.
That means Facebook has a problem. The company has bet everything on the metaverse because it represents the only way it can break away from the restrictions placed on it by platform owners like Apple and Google. It has to get people to actually spend lots of time in the metaverse, something that hasn't proved easy.
So, it's trying something that has worked for Apple. Facebook announced on Monday that it was opening a retail store in Burlingame, California, on May 9, where customers can try out things like the Facebook Portal videoconference device and its VR headsets. The idea, apparently, is that people will be more likely to buy into the company's vision for building the virtual world if they can try it out in a physical store.
"Once people experience the technology, they can gain a better appreciation for it. If we did our job right, people should leave and tell their friends, 'You've got to go check out the Meta Store,'" said Martin Gilliard, head of the Meta Store, in a statement.
I see two obvious problems:
The first is that Facebook isn't Apple. For one, Facebook isn't a hardware company. Sure, it makes a few devices, but that's not its primary business. As a result, I don't think people will be more likely to buy into the metaverse if there's a Facebook Store on the corner. You can already try out an Oculus headset in basically every Best Buy store.
Second, Apple's success in retail is unique among tech companies. The things that make people want to shop at an Apple Store aren't things you can just lift and copy into your own strategy.
I predict Facebook Store will probably do as well as [insert every other tech company that isn't Apple but tried to copy its retail strategy]. Anyone who has been paying attention to similar efforts could tell you that it's probably a bad idea.
If Microsoft, for example, which makes actual physical products that lots of people like and spend money on, can't make a physical retail business work, why does Facebook think it can? Microsoft isn't even the only one. Google has a few retail locations, but no one actually shops there.
Look, there's no question Meta has to do something. Zuckerberg has literally bet the entire company on his metaverse strategy. If he can't get people to buy in, it's only a matter of time before Facebook is in even bigger trouble.
The problem, however, isn't that people need to spend time in a physical store to understand what it will be like to wear a VR headset and spend all of their time in the metaverse. The problem is that no one wants to do that. That's why I can't help but think this effort won't end well.