Facebook reignites the fires of its Workplace unit

Facebook has announced its challenge to the video-conferencing segment and a reignition of its venture into the world of collaboration and productivity.

Back in 2016, Workplace by Facebook was announced, an attempt to diversify the Silicon Valley giants output and create a starting point to work with enterprise organisations in way outside of advertising. Much was made of the launch at the time, but it effectively dwindled away into irrelevance over the years as profits failed to materialise.

While none of the senior executives have paid much attention to the business unit, Workplace is very rarely mentioned by the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, it has been bundling along in the background. After starting to charge customers for the service in October 2017, Workplace now has more than 5 million paid users, a fraction of rivals but it is admirable for a business unit which has not been given much attention or praise.

Last night would appear to be the relaunch of efforts to crack into a new market, capitalising on remote working trends being forced onto companies of all sizes around the world.

“The coronavirus crisis has forced us to rethink how we work,” said Julien Codorniou, VP of Workplace at Facebook. “Changes expected to happen over several years have happened in just a couple of months. And what many companies have realised is that it’s not about where your people are, but whether they are connected and informed.

“At Workplace we believe strongly that video will be central to the future of work – enabling companies to maintain community, while exploring the opportunities and diversity that flexible working can offer.”

This is of course a very relevant trend for today and could be even more so moving forward. 84% of Telecoms.com readers believed the work from home trend would continue following the relaxation of societal lockdowns, meaning at least some elements of the coerced digital transformation projects which have been sprint through today will remain in place.

Facebook might not be getting in on the ground floor of this trend, but the prior existence of Workplace and the power of the Facebook brand should be enough for it to muscle some benefits and business of the likes of Microsoft Teams, Slack, Zoom and various other businesses which are so richly benefitting from today’s adverse conditions.

As part of this latest push into the enterprise space, ‘Rooms’ has been introduced as a video conferencing feature, Live Video Improvements allows for Town Hall style engagements, Workplace on Portal likes the enterprise push with its consumer IOT gamble, Oculus for Business ties VR into the mix and Work Groups is a productivity and management toolset.

Overall, it is a solid effort to bring a broad set of functionality and features into a single offering, with the opportunity to tie into other emerging elements of the Facebook business. The first attempt to muscle into this market in 2016 might not have been very successful, but this one should certainly be taken more seriously by rivals.


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AR/VR investments declined during 2019

Each year seems to be the year for virtual and augmented reality, but analyst firm Digi-Capital is now reporting investments have declined below the levels reported in 2017 and 2018.

Although it is still too early for the VR and AR neigh sayers to strut around too pompously, it is not the most encouraging of signs. The issue seems to be investments made in the continuously embryonic segment made in the final three months of the year.

The levels of investment in 2019 were still the third largest annual sum to date, though it was 35% lower compared to 2018, down to $4.1 billion. Digi-Capital has been measuring the success of the segment in terms of deal volume (number of deals) and deal value (dollars invested).

“While there could be an uptick in AR/VR M&A activity if a market inflection point happens in coming years, there isn’t an obvious catalyst for large-scale M&A in the short term,” the firm said in a blog post.

The prospects of virtual and augmented reality are worth keeping an eye on, as there is always a chance of a revolutionary impact on areas such as gaming, entertainment, training or video conferencing, but once again the segment is failing to live up to the promise. Q4 was the problem period for the segment, a single quarter, which does offer a glimmer of hope.

The biggest deal attributed to this sector over the course of 2019 was attributed to Snap, with the firm aiming to raise $1 billion in convertible senior notes. The funds were lined up to be used for working capital, operating expenses and capital expenditures, as well as potentially repurchasing common stock and for acquisitions.

Interestingly enough, a slow-down in the investment category of this segment could see a dramatic shift in the way it functions. Should investments continue to drop, start-ups might need to focus on revenue generation and managing burn rates. Without seed money and continued investments, the quality of products might suffer as firms are forced into go-to market strategies sooner than anticipated.

However, you have to remember this is only a short period of time and not necessarily a death sentence to the segment. Perhaps this is a bit of credibility for those who have been less than enthused by VR and AR for some time, you correspondent being one of them.

Facebook sets out to create its own OS

Facebook has reportedly hired ex-Microsoft employee Mark Lucovsky to oversee the development of its own operating system to reduce the dependence on Google’s Android.

While many have tried and failed to muscle in on the Android dominance in the OS world, Facebook has largely sat back to benefit from the success of Google. That said, according to The Information, in hiring the man who co-authored the Windows NT operating system Facebook is attempting to break-free of the Android shackles.

Although there is no official confirmation from the social media giant, it does make sense. Facebook is not going to be fighting Android for a share of the mobile OS segment, though it allegedly wants more control of its own fate when it comes to the Portal and Oculus portfolios.

“We really want to make sure the next generation has space for us,” Facebook’s Head of Hardware Andrew Bosworth said during the interview.

“We don’t think we can trust the marketplace or competitors to ensure that’s the case. And so we’re gonna do it ourselves.”

With the Portal smart home devices, VR head Oculus and AR glasses codenamed Orion, Facebook is creeping more and more into the physical world. It might not be the traditional stomping group for Zucks and co. though these are emerging environments where the rules have not been written yet.

What is worth noting is this is not the first time Facebook has attempted to create an OS. In 2013, Facebook launched an OS which ran on some HTC phones, but it should not be under-emphasised how much of a disaster this way. It was a catastrophic failure.

However, the playing field is slightly different now. This is not an OS which is trying to replicate the Android experience on mobile, Facebook is attempting to define its own experience on these devices and dictate its own product development cycle.

Verizon buys into alternative realities

Verizon has announced the acquisition of Jaunt XR, adding augmented and virtual reality smarts to its media division.

While few details about the deal have been unveiled, the deal will add an extra element to a division which has been under considerable pressure in recent months. The Verizon diversification efforts have proven to be less than fruitful to date, though this appears to be another example of throwing money at a disastrous situation.

“We are thrilled with Verizon’s acquisition of Jaunt’s technology,” said Mitzi Reaugh, CEO of Jaunt XR. “The Jaunt team has built leading-edge software and we are excited for its next chapter with Verizon.”

Jaunt XR will join the troubled media division of Verizon which has been under strain in recent months. The ambition was to create a competitor to Google and Facebook to secure a slice of the billions of dollars spent on digital advertising. On the surface it is a reasonable strategy, but like so many good ideas, the execution was somewhat wanting.

Since the acquisition of Yahoo, Verizon has had to deal with the after-effects of a monumental data breach, write off $4.6 billion of the money it spent on the transaction, spend big to secure a distribution deal with the NFL and cut 7% of its staff. The first few years of living the digital advertising dream has been nothing short of a nightmare.

Looking at the financials, during the last quarter the media division reported $1.8 billion in revenues. This was down 2.9% from the previous year and accounted for only 2% of the total revenues brought in across the group.

With Jaunt XR brought into the media family, new elements could be introduced to the portfolio. Details have not been offered just yet, though with VR, and more recently, AR expertise, there is an opportunity to create immersive, engaging content for the mobile-orientated aspects of the business.

This transaction will certainly add variety and depth to the services and products in the media portfolio, but soon enough you have to question whether Verizon is throwing good money after bad. This has not been a fruitful venture for the team thus far.

IBC 2019: Interactive takes centre stage as VR shuffles to side lines

Every couple of years there seems to be a massive resurgence for the promise of virtual reality before it is cast to the shadows. This year, interactive content took the limelight from VR.

This is not to say VR and augmented reality wasn’t present at IBC in Amsterdam. Throughout the exhibition halls you could see plenty of headsets and software to build the immersive environment, but on the conference stage it was barely mentioned.

The main stage is the business-end of almost every conference; it a technology or company isn’t a headliner, the ‘also-ran’ category list has gotten a bit longer. This is the conundrum which VR and AR has found itself in; there are some interesting technologies and discussions going on, but the most important people are talking about something else.

AR is progressing very quickly from the pale imitation which captured the imagination through the Pokémon Go app, but the illusive business case continues to frustrate. That said, an important trend which was evident through several sessions was interactive content.

This is an area which looks genuinely exciting. Everything from ‘Bandersnatch’ on Netflix, through to personalisation of sports content (selecting a commentator or parallel content) or Celebrity Big Brother, where users can select the camera they want to view and create their own viewing experience and story to follow. This is the next stage of content, and it is immediately more realistic than some of the blue-sky thinking ideas which are scattered throughout the exhibition halls.

Of course, this should not really be that much of a surprise. The idea of interactive or supplementary content being built into platforms is just one step along from how many younger generations consume content today. It isn’t a single point of consumption, its multiple screens, complimentary experiences and a variety of simultaneous touch-points.

Research from YuMe and Nielsen suggests the trend for adults who use their smartphone or laptop while watching TV content is increasing each year. For 2018, 187.3 million US adults admitted to using multiple screens simultaneously, up 6.4% from the year before. Users want more ways to engage with content and building interactive opportunities into content platforms is certainly one way to apply this trend in the real-world.

HTC taps Orange for new CEO

Struggling Taiwanese device maker HTC has finally found a full-time CEO by tapping into the European telecoms scene.

Former Orange exec Yves Maitre (pictured, no relation) takes over as CEO with immediate effect. He replaces owner and Chairwoman Cher Wang, who stepped in as CEO more than four years ago after deciding to throw in the towel on smartphones.  Wang has spent that time pivoting HTC towards virtual reality and the Vive headset, as well as some other connected devices.

Maitre was most recently EVP of Consumer Equipment and Partnerships at Orange was well as being a member of Orange’s innovation technology group, with a focus developing disruptive revenue opportunities, so his appointment is consistent with HTC’s new direction. Wang and the HTC board have clearly committed the company’s future to emerging mobile devices.

“When I took over as CEO four years ago, I set out to reinvent HTC as a complete ecosystem company and lay the foundations for the company to flourish across 5G and XR,” said Wang. “So, now is the perfect time to hand over the stewardship of HTC to a strong leader to guide us on the next stage of our journey.

“I am truly delighted that Yves is taking the reins; he has a long association with our company, and he shares our passion for innovation. I firmly believe Yves is the right leader to continue to lead HTC to its full potential.”

“HTC has long been a bellwether for new technology innovation and I’m honoured to be selected by the Board of Directors to lead the next phase of HTC,” said Maitre. “Across the world, HTC is recognized for its firsts across the mobile and XR space. I am incredibly energized to grow the future of both 5G and XR alongside HTC employees, customers and investors.  We will set out immediately to continue the transition from building the worlds’ best consumer hardware to also building complete services around them to make them easy to manage and deploy.”

XR refers to mixed reality, which covers all forms immersive digital experience, including augmented reality. The advent of 5G is a potential boon for this kind of tech, especially when the low-latency stuff starts to kick in, as it will enable wireless VR without the kind of lag that makes people throw up. Recruiting someone from the operator side appears to be an acknowledgement of that.

HTC was arguably the most successful Android smartphone maker initially, establishing close ties to Google and shipping in impressive volumes a decade ago. But then much bigger players like Samsung and Huawei got their acts together and HTC simply couldn’t compete with their deep pockets and economies of scale. It will attempt to replicate that feat with XR and hopefully will have a better strategy for fending off the big guys next time.

The number of commercial 5G devices almost tripled in Q2 – GSA

The latest data from the Global mobile Suppliers Association show the number of 5G devices being launched worldwide is accelerating rapidly.

If you take at look at the GSA data from the end of March only 19 vendors had announced forthcoming 5G devices, with 33 models officially confirmed. These numbers have now significantly increased, with the latest data showing 39 vendors have now announced upcoming devices and the number of officially confirmed devices has now nearly tripled, standing around 90.

Looking in depth at the recent data also provided by GSA, 28% of the 90 officially confirmed devices are phones (the number standing at 25). On top of that GSA found 23 CPR devices, 23 modules, seven hotspots with assorted dongles, routers and drones comprising the chasing pack. The devices contained 5G chipsets from just four vendors – Qualcomm, Mediatek, Samsung and Huawei, with Intel no longer in the game.

As expected, smartphone vendors have jumped on 5G for various marketing campaigns. The most conspicuous of these is Samsung, which released  the Galaxy S10 5G first in Korea on earlier this year and then in the UK on June the 7th . The S10, due to its 5G compatibility, has a wider array of VR and AR functions than other 4G phones. This new way to experience VR and AR is critical as it will reach further out towards the younger generations who enjoy mobile gaming or more specifically games like Pokémon GO and the more recent Harry Potter: Wizards Unite that heavily rely on the use of AR.

This latest batch of data from the GSA indicates the device ecosystem is fully ramping up its 5G output. How much of this is purely speculative rather than responding to specific demand is still unclear, but we should get the first lots of 5G device sales data before long, which will clarify things.

HTC debuts eye-tracking with enterprise VR launch

HTC has announced it is bringing its enterprise VR product to North America, after teasing executives at CES in January.

The product itself, Vive Pro Eye, is not cheap, $1,599, but features the latest in eye tracking technology with HTC claiming it is ‘setting a new standard’ for VR in the enterprise market. While the consumer VR segment has been relatively sluggish, despite the incredible promises made by technologists, though there does seem to be a bigger focus on enterprise in recent months.

The Vive Pro Eye follows up HTC’s Vive Pro which is already in the hands of various different enterprise customers throughout the world, introducing new features such as precision eye tracking software, deeper data analysis, new training environments and more intuitive user experiences.

And while some of the features might be considered excessive at the moment, there is always the potential to influence mainstream adoption.

“We’ve invested in VR technology to connect our fans to our game and deliver a new level of engagement through VR game competitions and in-ballpark attractions,” said Jamie Leece, SVP of Games and VR for Major League Baseball.

“By integrating eye tracking technology into Home Run Derby VR, we are able to transport this immersive baseball experience to any location without additional controllers needed. Our fans can simply operate menus by using their eyes.”

This is perhaps where the VR industry has fallen short of expectations over the first few years; cash conscious consumers do not have the funds to fulfil the promise. These are after all individuals who have been stung by various difference financial potholes over the last decade and might be hesitant to invest so handsomely in such an unproven technology.

The focus on enterprise is a much more sensible bet for many of the VR enthusiasts to follow. Firstly, in working with organizations like Major League Baseball, new applications can be created, and experiential experiences can be offered to consumers at the games. This might have a normalising impact for the technology on the mass market.

Secondly, there is a lot more money in the enterprise world than in the individual’s wallet, with decision makers much more enthusiastic about investments when it isn’t linked directly to their bank accounts.

Finally, there are more usecases in the enterprise world. Some of them might be boring, but they are realistic and important for the companies involved. Training exercises are an excellent example.

What this product also bringing into the equation is eye-tracking software, offering an entirely new element for developers to consider.

“Our virtual venues come to life as individual audience members can react with various animations when a user makes direct eye contact with them,” said Jeff Marshall, CEO of Ovation, a company which uses VR to help media train customers in public speaking environments.

“As a developer, there’s just no going back once you’ve seen all that eye tracking makes possible.”

From an experience perspective, the eye-tracking software can also add to the gaming world. Foveated rendering is a graphics-rendering technique which uses an eye tracker integrated which helps reduce rendering workload by reducing the image quality in the peripheral vision. By focusing processing power where it is needed most, the strain placed on the device and experience is lessened.

Many have suggested this technology could be at the forefront of the next generation of VR devices, both in the consumer and enterprise world. Whether this is enough to force the potential of VR from promise to reality remains to be seen, but something needs to be done.

SK Telecom is bolstering 5G launch with rich content

South Korea’s largest mobile operator will switch on 5G service for consumers on Friday and has plenty of goodies for consumers to fill the bandwidth with.

After publishing its 5G service packages for consumers, SK Telecom (SKT) announced that it is beefing up content, from streamed games to HD and VR videos, that the 5G users can choose from. In a press release the company claimed it has secured around 8,000 different content titles.

A special section for 5G called “SKT 5GX” is set up in SKT’s OTT video service that would include VR video (concert, city and museum tours), 5G MAX (IMAX-like experience), and UHD content (dramas, entertainment shows and music videos in 4K and above). There on offer will also be VR and AR games as well as exclusive streaming games. Additionally, a social VR will enable “multiple users to watch baseball games together in a virtual reality environment.”

“The AR, VR and cloud games unveiled today only mark the beginning of the age of Hyper-Innovation brought by 5G,” said Park Jung-ho, the Chief Executive Officer of SK Telecom. “SK Telecom will continue to introduce 5G-based innovative services to lead all areas of New ICT.”

In order to promote the early adoption of 5G, SKT will zero-rate data for consuming the content from ‘SKT 5GX’ section of the OTT mobile video service, as well as provide up to 5GB of free data for users of its mobile games and VR games. The promotion will run till the end of June.

SKT said that it has rolled out 34,000 5G base stations covering 85 metropolises across the country as well as some hotspots like shopping centres, metro lines in the greater Seoul region, etc., and is planning to expand the coverage to all the metro lines in the country, as well as the national parks and festival sites. The company has excluded Huawei from its 5G business and has been working with Ericsson, Nokia, and Samsung.

Is the VR market primed to pluck?

For all the promise of virtual reality (VR) the consumer appetite remains as somewhat of an unknown. Theoretically the technology could revolutionise the entertainment space, but we’re currently in a bit of a waiting game.

HTC is ready to gamble the consumer appetite, supporting ecosystem and product portfolio has evolved to such a position to provide the fuel for a subscription-based library of premium VR content.

“We have built a new model for VR that shines a light on the great library of VR content this industry has developed and gives users a reason to spend more time in headset than ever before,” said Rikard Steiber, President of Viveport.

“At the same time, we’re increasing developer reach and potential revenue as more developers can monetize a single Infinity user. We believe this model matches how consumers want to experience VR”

In pursuit of simplicity, Viveport is effectively a ‘Netflix for VR’. Customers can either pay $12.99 a month or $99 a year to access a VR content library with more than 600 titles already listed. As with other subscription models such as Netflix for content and Spotify for music, customers will have unlimited access to all content hosted on the platform.

However, you still have to answer the question as to whether the VR segment is ready to deliver the much-anticipated riches.

For the profits to be made, three criteria have to be satisfied. Firstly, is there an ecosystem which is creating enough volume of content, wide enough variety and immersive enough experiences. Secondly, is the hardware priced to allow the opportunity to generate mass market penetration. And finally, is there enough demand from the consumer.

With 600 titles already listed on the platform, this would suggest there is a large enough ecosystem in place to create the content. HTC is promising more titles, as well as some co-ordinated launches such as ‘Angry Birds VR: Isle of Pigs’. Secondly, the price of VR headsets has been coming down recently, and while it is still expensive, it is not prohibitively so. Consumers can spend thousands at the top end, but then again Google Daydream View can be purchased for £69. The breadth of products is now available to make this segment potentially viable.

The final criterion is the consumer appetite. This is incredibly difficult to gauge without launching a product, but as long as there are early adopters it is a good time to launch. Let’s not forget, Netflix was not an immediate success, it took time to develop the monstrous subscription base it has today, but it steadily attracted more and more thanks to it being first to market, while also offering an affordable (and very good) experience. Much of this was done through word of mouth.

Another lesson which HTC will have to learn is that enough is never enough. Netflix has maintained it position as the leader in the content world because it is constantly driving for more. Last year, the team spend almost $8 billion on content acquisition and creation, a number which will drastically increase this year. Not only is Netflix funding bigger-budget productions, but it is also expanding the local content libraries around the world. With Viveport, HTC could do the same, but it needs to ensure it is constantly expanding.

HTC has crafted itself a leadership position in the VR world, and the raw materials are currently in place to make this a profitable segment. Add improved connectivity with fibre penetration increasing and 4G constantly improving to the above three criteria, and HTC could be onto a winner.

Who knows, maybe in a few years’ time we’ll be referencing Viveport as the heavyweight of the entertainment space, not Netflix.