HTC Vive became an enterprise product while you weren’t looking

A lot has changed at HTC in the decade since a small team broke off to form its mixed reality division. In fact, it’s a fundamentally different business in several meaningful ways. For one thing, you can’t call HTC a phone company any longer. Contrary to popular perception, the Taiwanese corporation does still produce handsets — primarily mid-range devices for the Asia market.

These days, the mixed reality business comprises the “vast majority” of HTC’s global business, says Dan O’Brien. We sat down with the Vive general manager at MWC earlier this week, alongside John Dabill, the brand’s head of Product Operations. Much like last year, HTC has gone big with the booth. It’s big and white, with several demo stations scattered throughout.

To get to the conference rooms in the rear, you have to walk between the dancing woman and the group of a half-dozen men aiming plastic guns in all directions. Beyond this, a few representatives from third parties are talking up their own wares, including Nord Space ApS, which helped customize an HTC headset for Danish ISS crew member Andreas Mogensen. The startup’s CTO notes that gravity plays a role in many systems’ tracking capabilities. It’s one of a number of things that need to be addressed before spending the tens of thousands of dollars per kilo to send it up.

It’s perhaps telling that the two front-facing demos are entertainment based. Certainly, watching someone playing a weird dance game does a lot more to pull in conference window shoppers than, say, an enterprise training app. Ultimately, however, the consumer business has shrunk dramatically relative to its enterprise offerings.

“We were 50/50,” says O’Brien, “but now we’re indexing closer to 70% [enterprise].” The executive notes that the seeds for a shift to enterprise were planted close to the beginning of Vive’s existence. In 2015, HTC sent 27,000 headsets to developers in a bid to bolster the Vive ecosystem. Around 30% of that figure went to enterprise devs. The company was ahead of the curve in this respect, internalizing a lesson that Magic Leap would learn the hard way, years later.

“[Magic Leap was] confused about what the market could really bear,” says O’Brien. “They started off so heavy with consumer and spent $10 million on a content deal. It launched with like 12 pieces of content for a $3,000 headset. It didn’t solve any problems. It was just an entertainment thing. You’re fighting over leisure time. That’s a really hard battle. You’ve got Xbox and PlayStation, your phone — you’re fighting over that time people have to entertain themselves, and I think they quickly figured and shifted everything to enterprise. But even then, that’s a real struggling business.”

HTC’s initial focus on gaming was in part born out of its early partnership with Valve. When the Vive team first came together, it began working on augmented reality prototypes. Steam’s parent company also played a key role in the company’s shift to VR.

“When we met with Valve, we were like, ‘hey, we can partner, because you guys know content and developers,’” says O’Brien. “That wasn’t a core competency of HTC in 2014. We were a smartphone company. We thought we could create something special and come together here. So, we put together an agreement and started working together.”

Gaming continues to be the key application on the consumer side, though the division is a drop in the bucket compared to enterprise — a gulf that will likely only continue to widen. In recent years, HTC hasn’t been in the headset conversation for most prospective buyers. Meta currently dominates the space, while Apple has more recently grabbed the spotlight with the Vision Pro (whether the $3,500 AVP can truly be considered a consumer device, however, is another question altogether).

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Meta, in particular, has sucked a lot of air out of the room. “I think Meta has adjusted the market perception of