What Happens When My Software Provider Disappears?

Companies go out of business, or get acquired, every day.  Especially in the tech sector.  It’s a fact of life.

Still, when it’s a business you’ve come to rely on, it can hurt. A lot. On May 26, 2015, a great number of augmented reality developers got that feeling when Metaio, one of the earliest and largest companies in the AR space suddenly went dark. Less than a year ago, Metaio had announced that over 100,000 developers were actively using its SDK (software development kit) to create their own AR applications. Those developers have poured countless hours into their software creation, relying on Metaio’s software to provide critical image recognition and other functions.

And then one day, Metaio’s website said this:

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The AR Twitterverse lit up with shock and speculation. A day later, it was announced that the company had been purchased by Apple.

 

The day the news broke, I inadvertently became the one to break it to a friend whose team had spent years building their projects on Metaio’s platform. In fact, he had just purchased a major upgrade to the software. In just a few minutes, I saw all five stages of grief–denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance–pass over his face.

Ok, well, maybe not acceptance.

At this past week’s Augmented World Expo, the largest annual gathering in the industry, Metaio was nowhere to be seen. The expo floor space it had rented was occupied by a former competitor, and its previously scheduled speakers were no-shows. But its sudden disappearance was certainly the leading scuttlebutt between sessions. Lots of people (especially its former competitors) were genuinely happy for the company, its founders, and employees, assuming (since no one will yet confirm anything) that the deal must have been lucrative for them.

But there were also plenty of developers wandering around a bit aimlessly, uncertain what their next move would be.

To be sure, the word “lawsuit” was whispered more than once. I won’t (and couldn’t) speculate in this venue as to the merits of that option, but it’s certainly a legitimate one to at least consider. Software products usually come with support periods, and if promises about future were made and broken, the law of contracts is there to make whole those who were aggrieved.

There are also a large number of competing platforms to choose from. For example, Daqri offers its 4D Studio for creating AR content, and recently acquired AR Toolkit in order to keep it open source. Vuforia is another popular platform that has also boasted over 100,000 developers, although Qualcomm just began charging for the software. And there are other options as well. Developers may find it easier to simply switch to one of these platforms going forward.

Without question, Apple’s acquisition of such a major player in the AR industry as Metaio is a positive sign for the augmented medium as a whole. I, and many others, have frequently said that digital eyewear won’t reach true social acceptance until Apple comes out with its own version. Metaio was strictly a software company, but their know-how will certainly help Apple catch up to what Google and others are already doing to expand and develop the augmented space.

Let’s just hope the independent developers don’t get left hanging in the process.