The Metaverse: What It Is, Where to Find it, Who Will Build It, and Fortnite
Technology frequently produces surprises that nobody predicts. However, the biggest developments are often anticipated decades in advance.
In 1945 Vannevar Bush described what he-called the “Memex”, a single device that would store all books, records and communications, and mechanically link them together by association. This concept was then used to formulate the idea of “hypertext” (a term coined two decades later), which in turn guided the development of the World Wide Web (developed another two decades later). The “Streaming Wars” have only just begun, yet the first streaming video took place more than 25 years ago. What’s more, many of the attributes of this so-called war have been hypothesized for decades, such as virtually infinite supplies of content, on-demand playback, interactivity, dynamic and personalized ads, and the value of converging content with distribution.
In this sense, the rough outlines of future solutions are often understood and, in a sense, agreed upon well in advance of the technical capacity to produce them. Still, it’s often impossible to predict how they’ll fall into place, which features matter more or less, what sort of governance models or competitive dynamics will drive them, or what new experiences will be produced. By the time Netflix launched its streaming service, much of Hollywood knew that the future of television was online (IP TV had been deployed in the late 1999s). The challenge was timing and how to package such a service (it took another 10 years for Hollywood to accept all of their channels, genres and content needs to be collapsed into a single app/brand).
The popularity of video game broadcasting and YouTubers still elude many in the media industry, as does the idea that the best way to monetize content might be to give it away for free and charge for optional $0.99 items of no consequential value. The acquisition of media conglomerate Time Warner by landline internet giant AOL was set in 2000 based on the idea media and tech/distribution needed to converge, but was unwound in 2009 after it failed to produce much benefit. Nine years later, it was then bought by mobile internet giant AT&T under the same premise.
Just as it was hard to envision in 1982 what the Internet of 2020 would be — and harder still to communicate it to those who had never even “logged” onto it at that time — we don’t really know how to describe the Metaverse.
While many technologists imagined some sort of “personal computer”, its attributes and timing were so unpredictable that Microsoft dominated the PC era that began in the 1990s rather than the mainframe domineer IBM. And while Microsoftclearly foresaw mobile, it misread the role of the operating system and too much of the hardware, hence the rise of iOS and Android globally (and Microsoft’s shift from the OS layer to the app/services one).
In a similar sense, Steve Jobs’ priorities for computing were always “right”, they were just too early and focused on the wrong device. More broadly, the two most dominant cases of the early Internet were instant messaging and email, and yet the importance of social apps/networks was still unexpected until the late 2000s. And for that matter, all of the prerequisites for building Facebook existed pre-Y2K, but Facebook didn't come along until 2005 – and even then, it was an accident.
Since the late 1970s and early 1980s, many of those in the technology community have imagined a future state of, if not quasi-successor to, the Internet – called the “Metaverse”. And it would revolutionize not just the infrastructure layer of the digital world, but also much of the physical one, as well as all the services and platforms atop them, how they work, and what they sell. Although the full vision for the Metaverse remains hard to define, seemingly fantastical, and decades away, the pieces have started to feel very real. And as always with this sort of change, its arc is as long and unpredictable as its end state is lucrative.