a microsoft teams call with a mix of live attendees and digital avatars
Image: Microsoft

Are we really ready for the enterprise metaverse?

Protocol Enterprise

Welcome to Protocol | Enterprise, your comprehensive roundup of everything you need to know about cloud and enterprise software. This Thursday: Microsoft's misplaced metaverse, why consulting companies are building software, and the hacking long game.

New verse, same as the first

After 18 months of proclamations and deliberations about the future of work, it's pretty clear that no one has any real idea what that future will actually look like, and that those bidding to own a piece of that future won't let that ambiguity deter them.

Microsoft has been at the center of those conversations during the pandemic era of enterprise software, and made a renewed bid this week for CIOs and office managers to consider its vision for the future of workplace collaboration. During its Ignite conference, the most valuable company in the world (at the time of writing, at least) introduced its Mesh for Teams product after previewing the Mesh concept earlier this year.

Mesh for Teams is basically a modern Second Lifethat borrows design inspiration from the legless avatars of Meta (née Facebook) and supports Excel. And, if you believe the company, this is the future of workplace collaboration.

  • If something sounds familiar here, yes, Microsoft invoked the "metaverse" in describing Mesh for Teams.
  • "Mesh for Teams ... is designed to make online meetings more personal, engaging and fun. It's also a gateway to the metaverse — a persistent digital world that is inhabited by digital twins of people, places and things," the company wrote in a blog post.
  • At first, Mesh for Teams will allow meeting participants to create digital representations of themselves to stand in for their actual faces on those days when turning on the camera is just not an option.
  • Later, Microsoft envisions that your company will build "immersive spaces — metaverses — within Teams" so that employees can "experience those serendipitous encounters that spark innovation."

Are you ready for the metaverse onboarding process at your next company, where every new employee has to spend some time making their digital representation?

  • That's exactly what Accenture is doing, according to Microsoft: "New hires meet together on Teams where they receive instructions on how to create a digital avatar and access One Accenture Park, a shared virtual space that enables immersive experiences during onboarding."
  • The idea is that people spread around the world will get to "meet" each other through these spaces and develop professional connections, just like they might by meeting in person for the first time.
  • Microsoft will seed Teams workspaces with "a set of pre-built immersive spaces" for companies that lack the time or expertise to build their own virtual worlds.

The key argument for the enterprise "metaverse" is that a digital avatar is more engaging than a blank screen: that we'll find something more in the way people choose to represent themselves in digital form. And, of course, that these digital experiences will be acceptable substitutes for real-world interaction. Yet no one has any idea if any of that is actually true.

  • There have been lots of studies conducted over the past 18 months on remote work, but almost none of them — including Microsoft's — have had anything definitive to say about the effects of the "metaverse" on productivity or engagement.
  • In fact, even a lot of the less exotic remote-work and hybrid-work tools that already exist and have been peddled by enterprise software vendors nonstop for over a year have been met with mixed reactions inside some of the biggest companies in the world, as a recent Protocol report showed.
  • And any attempt to roll out a metaverse-style workplace collaboration tool across the average non-tech company is likely to be met with the kind of generational warfare that makes emoji misinterpretation look tame.

It's true that we're overdue for a significant shift in the way we use technology at work, 15 years after mobile computing and social networking reinvented the way we interact. And it's not impossible to imagine some sort of mixed-reality experience making its way into the conference room.

But Microsoft as the metaverse visionary? Microsoft has been behind the curve of almost every single important technology inflection point over the last 20 years, because, for the most part, that's what happens to tech incumbents.

  • Google and Facebook divided up the internet. Apple reimagined the personal computer. AWS and Salesforce upended enterprise computing.
  • Microsoft became the most valuable company in the world by eventually recognizing those shifts and quickly changing its strategy in the areas that mattered most to its massive customer base, and Satya Nadella deserves enormous credit for that accomplishment.
  • There's no reason to think Microsoft won't be able to pull that trick off again in the future. But Microsoft hasn't invented the future in a very long time.

If 10 years from now we really are logging into work every morning in some sort of metaverse, smiling digital avatars covering up our hangovers and loathing for our bosses, a company we've never heard of is likely to have made that happen.

— Tom Krazit


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This week on Protocol

Git pushed: GitHub CEO Nat Friedman announced he's stepping down three years after he was tapped to lead the company following its acquisition by Microsoft. Chief Product Officer Thomas Dohmke will take over at an interesting time for its relationship with both Microsoft and the broader development community, as our interview earlier this year with COO Erica Brescia discussed.

The new consultant? Firms like Booz Allen and McKinsey are somewhat notorious in the tech industry for dumping 100-pound briefing documents on the desks of clients who ask for advice about software strategies, and then hitting the links. But as Protocol's Aisha Counts reported, those same consulting companies are increasingly building software on behalf of their clients.

Supply, crunched: Chip executives have been pretty pessimistic about the duration of the ongoing chip shortage, yet Qualcomm's Cristiano Amon bucked the trend Wednesday during his company's earnings call. Qualcomm expects to have increased supply toward the end of this year, Protocol's Max Cherney reported, thanks to shrewd capacity deals with multiple suppliers.

Around the enterprise


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