Mark Zuckerberg wants to own the future of computing — but not alone. That’s the intended takeaway from this year’s Meta (formerly Facebook, formerlier Oculus) Connect, where the Meta CEO described his plans for a new computing platform. “In each generation of computing that I’ve seen so far — PCs, mobile — there’s basically an open ecosystem and there’s a closed ecosystem,” Zuckerberg said. “I strongly believe that an open, interoperable metaverse built by many different developers and companies is going to be better for everyone.”
“Openness” is typically considered a good thing in computing. It can promote competition and let people use tech in creative ways the designers didn’t expect. But Zuckerberg’s definition of an “open ecosystem” might surprise some people who support that ideal. For now, he’s not describing a world where people can use a new platform on their own terms rather than those of major companies. Instead, he’s promoting one built on corporate deals and case-by-case permissions — a system that might allow more big players than usual into a tech sandbox but often leaves software designers and ordinary users in the dust.
Zuckerberg’s definitions of “open” and “closed” are based on business partnerships
Zuckerberg elaborated on his definitions of “open” and “closed” in a conversation with my colleague, Alex Heath. “In the closed ecosystem, very tightly integrated, relatively insular, a lot of the value basically just flows toward the closed ecosystem over time,” he said. “In the open ecosystem, basically you have much broader partnerships. So Microsoft didn’t build the chips; they didn’t build the PCs; they didn’t build the App Store. It was all this key stuff that was developed around the ecosystem.”
This is meant as a comparison with Apple, which manages every piece of its supply chain — so you can’t buy an iOS or macOS-powered device from a non-Apple hardware maker. But it unintentionally casts Meta’s approach to VR in a less favorable light, too.
To understand why, let’s cut to Zuckerberg’s description of those halcyon pre-iPhone days:
In PCs, I think you’d say that Windows during the ’90s and 2000s especially was really the primary ecosystem in computing. The open ecosystem was winning.
These are two of the funniest sentences you could string back to back about the Microsoft of the 1990s and early 2000s. It’s true the company formed supply chain partnerships in a way Apple didn’t, including the “Wintel” team-up that helped launch its business alongside Intel. It also dictated their terms with an iron fist. It squeezed out other operating systems by making hardware companies pay royalties on non-Windows computers. It responded to the web’s growth by ruthlessly smothering the browser startup Netscape to nurture its own decades-long laughingstock Internet Explorer. It allegedly pushed Apple to abandon QuickTime and referred to the proposal as “knifing the baby.” I could go on — the US government certainly did.
The Quest is undeniably more open than the iPhone
Microsoft was so far from meaningfully open that it was almost broken up by regulators. It was so notoriously domineering that we got a whole movie about a Bill Gates stand-in who murders programmers. If anything, it’s the kind of reference point that I personally might avoid if I were fighting antitrust suits across multiple continents! To the extent Microsoft is open, it’s partly thanks to years of intense legal pressure that Meta is only beginning to face.
When Zuckerberg contrasts Microsoft and Meta’s ecosystems with iOS, I want to give Meta full credit: the Quest is more open than the iPhone. Its Android-based operating system lets you sideload apps with some relatively simple settings changes, including a competing app store with SideQuest. Before Connect, Meta confirmed to reporters that the Quest Pro will continue this tradition.
Meta rarely advertises sideloading, though, and Zuckerberg didn’t discuss it yesterday. Combing through the keynote for an “open metaverse” future, here are some of the highlights I found:
- A multipronged partnership with Microsoft, including Windows 365 support and a crossover between Meta’s Horizon Workrooms and Microsoft Teams
- Full-featured VR apps from companies like Adobe and Autodesk
- Support for TypeScript code and externally created 3D models in Horizon Worlds
- The ability to use Meta avatars in other applications, including Zoom
- The hypothesized future ability to take purchased virtual items across different “metaverse” services (which is actually absurdly hard)
- Soon-to-be-announced Quest 2 accessories from third-party hardware makers
- An API that lets you export data from the Quest’s fitness tracker
- Support for a limited version of the Horizon Worlds social experience on desktop and phones, not just Quest headsets
These announcements seem generally good (except Workrooms / Teams, which threatens to make two of my job’s least convenient conferencing options extra confusing), and I’m glad Meta is making them. In several places, it’s clearly going further than Apple, which restricts access to popular services like iMessage. But come on. The iPad supports Microsoft apps. You can use a limited FaceTime service on Android phones. Apple has a massive third-party accessories market. Developers use iOS software development kits and APIs constantly.
Virtually nobody believes the iOS user experience doesn’t include “many different developers and companies.” For most critics, the problem is Apple’s outsized power to dictate the rules of that inclusion — and for all Meta’s new partnerships, it’s not exactly disavowing that power.
Even after yesterday’s Horizon Worlds expansion, Worlds doesn’t support competing headset platforms like SteamVR — an understandable gap when lots of headsets are niche and idiosyncratic but one that far smaller companies like VRChat have filled. You can import 3D models into Meta’s metaverse, but you can’t leave and easily take your friends list into another metaverse. It’s offering tools for outside developers to use, but they ultimately funnel into one big Meta-owned world, not a robust independent protocol like the web.
Apple already relies on “many different developers” — it just sets the terms
Meta doesn’t even pass that dubious Microsoft bar of unbundling hardware, firmware, and app sales. The company promotes its use of Qualcomm chips, but it hasn’t released a third-party-branded VR headset since the Samsung Gear VR and an abortive Xiaomi China partnership, both of which expired around 2019. It’s selling smart glasses with eyewear monopolist Luxottica in a very clear play to build trust using the famous Ray-Ban brand — not strike a blow for interoperability. It offers exclusive Quest games on a tightly curated store. Zuckerberg is treating cross-platform Horizon Worlds support as a major openness coup, but while plenty of people might love playing Meta exclusives like Resident Evil 4 VR on a competing headset, the company’s own employees don’t want to hang out in Worlds.
So far, huge parts of Meta’s “openness” happen on its terms and can evaporate the moment they become inconvenient. If you’re Satya Nadella, then sure, you’re in a strong bargaining position. But if you’re a small developer pushing the Quest’s technical limits, you might find yourself censured for risking a bad user experience — or in a less generous interpretation, competing with a Meta app. If you’re a user who wants a Quest headset but not a Horizon social profile, then with rare exceptions, you won’t get past the setup screen. Successful VR studios have a habit of getting absorbed by Meta, mirroring how the company fights competition in the non-VR web.
And in the past, Meta has promoted the benefits of locking down its ecosystem. It’s described how strict app store standards help people have a positive first experience in VR, not a disorienting or nauseating one. It’s talked about how mandatory Facebook (and later Meta) accounts give you a single easy way to find friends across different apps. So maybe open versus closed is a smokescreen to try and hide the real issue, which is what’s best for the customer...
Wait, sorry, that’s not me. That’s Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple. He’s talking about the iPhone.