Facebook Pushes Further Into AR

In an interview with Recode following Facebook’s F8 conference, Mark Zuckerberg laid out his rationale for Facebook’s big bet on augmented reality:

“Think about how many of the things you use [that] don’t actually need to be physical. You want to play a board game? You snap your fingers, and here’s the board game. You want to watch TV? You don’t need a physical hardware TV, you buy a one-dollar app ‘TV’ and put it on the wall.” – Mark Zuckerberg

To push towards this future – and in an attempt to own the underlying technology – Facebook launched its “Camera Effects Platform,” an open platform for developers to build AR-features and lenses for the Facebook in-app camera. Zuckerberg also confirmed to Recode that Facebook is building “AR hardware” and shared his thoughts on the future of AR and VR; among them:

  • There will be demand for separate VR and AR products in the future.
  • The technology doesn’t yet exist to create the AR glasses that industry leaders are envisioning.
  • Building VR products today will help build the AR products of the future.
  • AR will be a bigger business than VR.

Our take: AR will enhance the smartphone, then replace it. It’s consensus that AR will be bigger than VR over at least the next 10 years — and we agree. AR will enhance the smartphone, then replace it in that time frame. But if you look out further than that, perhaps 30+ years, the immersiveness of VR has the potential to be so good that it rivals base reality. This will require advances in both artificial intelligence and neuroscience, not just digital enhancement. If VR can create alternate worlds as rich as the real one, we think the opportunity would surpass anything humans have created to date.

Facebook gets it, and they are investing accordingly. In fact, the biggest players in the space will collectively spend over $51B on R&D in 2017, of which we estimate $4B will be AR-related spend.

From Google’s work on Glass (2013) and Tango (2014) to Microsoft’s investment in Hololens to Apple’s uncharacteristically vocal pursuit of AR as a core technology, the biggest players are determined not to miss out on the next dominant computing platform and the AR technology underneath it. In fact, in our assessment, Facebook lags behind other incumbents including Google, Apple and Microsoft. But they’ve got a foothold in social and, today, AR is expanding through social – the most forward-thinking AR application is Snapchat. Everyone else is following fast and F8 is a clear indicator that Facebook is doubling down on AR in the race to own the OS of the future.

Disclaimer: We actively write about the themes in which we invest: artificial intelligence, robotics, virtual reality, and augmented reality. From time to time, we will write about companies that are in our portfolio.  Content on this site including opinions on specific themes in technology, market estimates, and estimates and commentary regarding publicly traded or private companies is not intended for use in making investment decisions. We hold no obligation to update any of our projections. We express no warranties about any estimates or opinions we make.

Feedback Loup: College Panel

We recently hosted a panel of 8 college students from the University of Minnesota. The goal was to better understand how millennials think about social media, communications, video, VR, AR, the selfie generation, the future of work, and privacy. Here’s a summary of what we learned:

Text Is Dying

  • Quote: “Texting replaced email, and photos have replaced text messages”.
  • Message: Text is being used less frequently by each of our panelists. They view text as a formal way to communicate. Snap, Facebook and Instagram are the preferred communication platforms, with Facebook settings being switched to photos only. The panelists mentioned tech platforms promoting messaging within games as a way to maintain usage.
  • Takeaway: Text is slowly going away, replaced by video and photos. Text is viewed more as a formal way to communicate.

Fake News

  • Quote: “I like Snap for news.”
  • Message: Our panelists get their news from a wide variety of sources. 7 of 8 panelists are not concerned about fake news. Snap was the most popular way to aggregate news from traditional sources (3 of 8), followed by mainstream news outlets; e.g., CNN and WSJ.
  • Takeaway: Professional news is still respected but not paid for by these college students.

The Future of Work

  • Quote: “It’s scary. If we can’t have cashiers, truckers and fast food jobs. . . how will people live?”
  • Message: College students know they are entering a workforce that will have dramatic changes over the next 30 years. They have concerns about who’s going to control everything as resources become more concentrated. The University of Minnesota offers a class titled “Size of the Future” that addresses the risk of job loss to automation. The group did consider these changes when thinking about a career, with an increased interest in a more technical education that feels more defensible. Ultimately these students believe that the negative impact of lost jobs will be partially offset by the positive impact of new industries being formed.
  • Takeaway: College students understand that the workforce is changing. They envision social challenges emerging from displacement of workers with lower levels of education. But they believe a college education will ensure that their futures are safe.

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Jump Ball for the OS of the Future

As we watched the run up in SNAP shares since its IPO last week, we wondered how much of the move was based on potential revenue growth of more than 2x in 2017 or investors buying in to Snap’s long term vision as a camera company. Their vision suggests Snap wants to expand its position as an AR platform and compete for the jump ball of the next computing paradigm. That led to a bigger question: who is best positioned to win in AR and own the OS of the future? Here we weigh in on who’s most likely to grab that jump ball.

Counting Down to Tip Off

One of our core beliefs is that every 10-15 years a new computing paradigm emerges that changes the way humans interface with technology. Each paradigm shift creates an opportunity to own a new OS layer. In the late 80s it was the PC, ultimately powered by Windows, Mac and Linux. In the late 90s it was the Internet. We would argue that Google and Amazon provided the closest thing to an OS for the web. In the mid 2000s it was mobile, which is owned by iOS and Android. It’s obvious that the biggest value lies in owning that OS layer as evidence by the market caps of Apple ($730b), Google ($575b), and Microsoft ($490b).

What We Know About The AR OS Layer

We know that over the next few years, most AR functionality will happen through existing mobile OSes (iOS and Android); however, we also know that AR wearables – in order to drive a true paradigm shift – will need their own OS. It seems likely that there are 2-3 winners as the AR OS given what we saw in PC, Internet and mobile.

This is necessary because developers and hardware manufacturers need reach and scale to maximize profits, so they will only build for the biggest audiences. If there are more than 3 OSes, reach and scale will be difficult to achieve.

We also know that there will likely be at least one OS solution that is closed and one that is open. This is another commonality across the PC, Internet, and, mobile. Mac, Amazon, and iOS represent closed or integrated systems. The end-to-end experience is largely controlled by one player that allows some restricted development on the platform. Windows, Google, and Android represent open systems that allow broader utilization by third parties. Closed systems tend to be first to market, and the tight integration of software and hardware offer a user friendly experience that promotes early adoption. Open systems tend to follow, enabling third-party developers to innovate on hardware or software features while utilizing a standard, consumer-adopted OS. This means that hardware tends to become a commodity and, while there are definite challenges around miniaturization and battery today, we expect AR wearables to go the same way.

AR Is A Culmination Of Several Core Disciplines

Another core belief we hold is that the future of computing must build on prior technologies while introducing revolutionary changes; the AR OS will be no different. The winners of the AR OS layer will combine camera hardware with an OS that uses computer vision to map the real world and augment it with a layer of information and present it in a user-friendly interface. The OS will also need to incorporate artificial intelligence including the ability to interpret and interact with user speech as well as environmental sounds. But camera and UX design are just two of the more visible pieces of the AR stack. Supporting those elements are maps with points of interest, organized informational data, social data, a developer community, content, and payments. Unsurprisingly, that definition of the AR tech stack puts established companies like Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, and Amazon in the best position to be AR platform winners because they already have many of the big pieces in place.

Below is a scorecard that ranks many of the major players in AR in each of these core disciplines. We note that low scores in the table represent categories of potential M&A for the corresponding company.

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Snap’s IPO And The Road Ahead

Snap priced its IPO at $17 per share, implying a $23.6 billion market cap.  To put the valuation in perspective, we think Snap could grow revenues by 100% to ~$800 million in 2017 and believe some buy side investors think the number will be closer to $1 billion.  Therefore, Snap is trading at about 29.5x our CY17 revenue expectation and 23.6x the early bullish whisper.  For comparison, Facebook trades at about 10x the Street’s CY17 revenue estimate of $37.8 billion.  There is a vast difference in forward growth that helps justify the difference in multiples: 100%+ y/y growth for Snap this year vs 36% for Facebook.  Snap is obviously at a much different stage in its lifecycle as a company vs Facebook and is actually attacking social networking from a different angle – the camera.

We believe investors will have questions over the next year as to what being a “camera company” means.  Philosophically, we think of it as Snap trying to own the tech stack one step above social.  The camera has already established itself as the future of communication.  Snapchat, Snap’s flagship product, relies on smartphone cameras to enable its service.  Without connected cameras, Snapchat doesn’t exist.  By trying to own, or at least influence, the camera layer itself, Snap evolves beyond a social media app into an enabler of communications.  In that sense, Snap’s focus on the camera is not all that dissimilar from Facebook with its experiments with VR and AR.  The difference is Snap appears to be all in.

Trying to own the camera layer may come through multiple products.  Most obvious is software that uses and enhances current cameras.  Snap already does this with products like Lenses.  We expect the company to continue to develop software that utilizes the camera both in core Snapchat and perhaps outside of it as well.  The second camera product is Spectacles, which we view as the most useable AR glasses on the market today.  There is next to no learning curve because the glasses focus on one simple task: recording video through a camera.  Spectacles aren’t the future of AR, but they are a baby step toward the next phase that will add a little more functionality.   Beyond Spectacles, we believe the company is experimenting with other hardware, which may be other consumer wearables or may be products they look to partner with existing hardware manufacturers.

We don’t know how the stock will react tomorrow or over the next year.  What we do know is that the camera is at the centerpiece of communication already, and if Snap can find a way to own the camera they will be rewarded handsomely.

Disclaimer: We actively write about the themes in which we invest: artificial intelligence, robotics, virtual reality, and augmented reality. From time to time, we will write about companies that are in our portfolio.  Content on this site including opinions on specific themes in technology, market estimates, and estimates and commentary regarding publicly traded or private companies is not intended for use in making investment decisions. We hold no obligation to update any of our projections. We express no warranties about any estimates or opinions we make.

An Open Letter To Snap Ahead Of Its IPO

Dear Snap, Inc.,
Congratulations on your S-1 filing this past week.  It’s a great accomplishment as a company and great for the tech industry.  During our 35+ collective years as stock analysts, we’ve helped a lot of companies go public.  We know you have great banks working on your deal that will give you good advice, but we thought we’d share our most important learnings about how the best companies handle IPO’ing and being a public company.
  1. Manage Expectations.  Set an achievable bar for revenue and earnings and stick to it.  Obvious, but easier said than done.  You want to be Bill Belichick (go Pats), not Rex Ryan here.  We’ve seen too many companies agree that this is the right approach, only to miss a quarter out of the gate or within the first year.  The easiest quarter to get right should be the first one out of the gate, your first quarter as a public company.  If you miss your first quarter out, you’re in for a year of buy side investors disbelieving everything you say and you’ll have to slowly rebuild your credibility.  We believe it’s better to take a slight hit on your valuation at the IPO with conservative numbers you have a very good chance to beat than more aggressive numbers you think you might hit, but aren’t 100% certain.  The slight hit to IPO valuation may not even happen because smart investors will work through your conservative numbers and recognize that you understand the game.
  2. Guidance.  Give some level of guidance because it will make your life easier.  Every great tech company takes a different approach to guidance.  Neither Google nor Facebook offer formal quarterly or annual guidance, but both occasionally give directional color.  Facebook more than Google.  An example is Facebook’s policy of offering verbal expense growth guidance quarter-to-quarter.  Both Apple and Amazon offer one quarter out guidance for total revenue and the ability to work toward an operating number.  Microsoft offers one quarter out guidance with segment level detail as well as high-level thoughts for the full year.  Tesla also offers one quarter out color on units shipped with a full-year expectation.  The bottom line is this: guidance gives you the ability to influence the conversation around your numbers, particularly as a new company, so we think it makes sense to offer it.  When we were analysts, we always had a lot of positive feedback on how Microsoft handled guidance and we didn’t even cover that stock, so a quarter out with a little color on the full year will make investors happiest.  We’d recommend the full-year color be high level and about things you directly control (expenses, CAPEX, product launches, etc.) without commenting on revenue.  One additional thing we’d suggest around guidance, while not formal, is to directionally explain the long-term model (5+ years out).  The company is investing heavily in product and talent, thus operating at a loss today.  What do operating margins look like in 5 years?  Should we expect Facebook margins?  This leads in to the next suggestion…
  3. Paint The Long-Term Picture.  While every great tech company treats guidance differently, they treat talking about the long-term the same.  Explaining the long-term strategy brings in long-term investors, not all that dissimilar to pitching venture investors.  Hedge funds and traders might move your stock day-to-day, but long-term investors will shape your stock chart over years.  Facebook and Google are among the best at painting the long-term picture of their businesses.  Facebook explicitly updates its 3, 5, and 10 year plan every earnings call, which tends not to change much, as it shouldn’t.  Google tends to speak more thematically and has been emphasizing AI and machine learning as the future of their business over the past several quarters.  Use your time with investors on the roadshow to explain what it means to be a camera company and why that’s important for the future because text is dead.  Explain how this is good for advertisers.  Incorporate AR into the discussion.  The camera is the basis for computer vision.  Lenses is emerging as a product to do interesting things with AR in the near term and Spectacles are the most usable AR product on the market today.  Tell investors how those products evolve over the next few years.  Facebook’s 3/5/10 window presentation is the cleanest and would suggest something similar.  It’s not like they haven’t borrowed from you before.
  4. Optionality.  All great tech companies have optionality to their stories.  We define optionality as key products or services that have little to no direct revenue contribution today, but do have the potential to be significant in the future.  Usually stocks with optionality are rewarded with higher multiples.  Some examples: Amazon with Alexa and original content, Facebook with VR and Messenger/WhatsApp, Google with Waymo and Cloud, Tesla with Powerwall/Powerpack and Solar City, Apple with the car and AR.  Snap’s optionality story is probably in AR wearables.  As noted above, Spectacles are the most usable AR product on the market today.  They focus on one simple feature: the camera.  Give investors enough of your vision here so they can dream about the future.

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