My opinion on the Apple Vision Pro without really talking about the Apple Vision Pro
Just before the WWDC keynote, I wrote an article about “Understanding and assessing AR, MR and VR headsets”. But what if assessing the headset doesn’t make sense to begin with?
The keynote is over, the device is announced, and everybody is talking about it. The criticism that people home in on is: What is this thing even for?
Nilay Patel writes for the Verge:
“Apple has clearly solved a bunch of big hardware interaction problems with VR headsets, mostly by out-engineering and out-spending everyone else that’s tried. But it has emphatically not really answered the question of what these things are really for yet.”
(If you have an hour, absolutely listen to the respective Vergecast episode)
Dave Karpf identified it a Jackpot technology:
“Apple’s headset isn’t for anything right now. It’s, to borrow a phrase from William Gibson’s The Peripheral, a Jackpot Technology. It becomes increasingly compelling in a degraded future where much of what we take for granted in the present becomes less accessible.”
They are right in that the Vision Pro does not have a use case. But I would argue that trying to interpret too much into it misses the point.
The Vision Pro is neither VR, nor AR — It’s not anything
It is very clear that the Vision Pro is not what Apple wants. Their goal is a true all-day augmented reality device. Tim Cook famously pointed to his spectacles when asked about his desired form factor.
But as I said before, this is not possible right now. The technology required to build such a device does not exist, not even as a concept in some laboratory somewhere. There is no amount of money that can buy it. I would even argue that it is unknowable when it can exist.
And so, Apple built the next best thing: A crude emulation.
Instead of having normal eyeglass lenses with integrated digital input, they had to settle for video pass-through. Instead of a normal spectacle frame, they had to settle for ski goggles. Instead of transparent glass, they had to settle for an external display showing your eyes. Instead of integrated batteries, they had to settle for an external battery pack. And so on.
They took a horse, built a stagecoach around it, and called it a car.
They had no choice. The internal combustion engine cannot exist right now. And I’m sure that they despise the Vision Pro for what it is not.
I also hope they find solace in the technical marvel they created. It is an amazing, awe-inspiring, truly groundbreaking Frankensteins Monster of a product. Where I once called the HoloLens the equivalent of the Nokia Communicator, the Vision Pro is the Apple Newton. None of the ingenious components or design patterns will ever end up in the product they envision. The horse is not a car. The device doesn’t matter for the future that Apple envisions, except as a compass pointing north.
When does Apple release product categories?
After the keynote I sat down and tried to think about what I had just seen. It instinctively didn’t make any sense. They did put a horse inside a stagecoach and called it a car. What is this thing even for?
Then I had a coffee and re-watched the announcement of the Apple Watch.
There it was. Going further back, it started to make sense.
The iPhone was announced as a phone, a music player, and a Web device, with Steve Jobs proudly showing the “full Safari experience” on stage. Well, it is still a phone. But the music player, originally filled with music from your Mac via cable, expanded into an online multimedia content consumption machine, from Apple Music to Spotify, YouTube, Netflix, and others. And instead of browsing websites, apps became the dominant experience with the eventual introduction of the app store. But above all, the iPhone turned out to be the best — and in many cases only — camera that people own. It’s a Rememberall.
The iPad was announced as an eBook and magazine reader, a netbook alternative, and gaming device. It turned out to be the even better content consumption machine for video, a drawing tablet for creatives (making Apple eventually concede that a stylus does make sense), and an ambient family computing device.
The Apple Watch was announced to be about personalization and personal connection. It turned out to be about health care and fitness and lately about safety.
In case this isn’t clear: Apple does not enter a category with a finished products or vision. For all these products, they had no idea what a thing was really for. Or rather, their original ideas and claims turned out to be wrong.
Apple introduces a product category when they are comfortable enough that “they can figure it out in 4 generations or so.”
To me, the point is not what this device is and what it can do, but the statement behind it: “We’re coming, you have 3, maybe 5 generations until we absolutely dominate.” Again, since the timeline for the desired device is unknowable, this might be longer, but Apple will try. The Newton will become the initial iPad, the initial iPad will become the thing it is today.
Why Apple creates products
In my mind, Apple simply enters a category because it’s a category. They want to have a product in every category of a significant size. Their headset is a headset because it's a headset.
For Apple, every product is an extension of their lifestyle ecosystem, with one product in every category that a consumer can touch, all working seamlessly together.
Each might have a different understanding of the market size, for example the expected sales for iPhone are different than for MacBook or Watch. However, they create a product in every category with the confidence that at this point it doesn’t matter if one product eats another — it’s all their ecosystem. iPad sales eat into MacBook Air sales? iPhone Max sales eat into iPad sales? Eventually Vision Pro sales might eat into iPhone sales? It doesn’t matter — it’s all their money.
They would rather disrupt themselves than to lose to anybody else. Again, their headset is a headset because it’s a headset.
Every new category requires the support of the developer ecosystem. Not that long ago, Microsoft and Meta laid off a considerable number of spatial computing veterans. There are people that have worked on hardware and software for HoloLens, Oculus Quest and more.
While in absolute numbers a couple of thousand developers, designers and artists doesn’t sound that much, don’t forget that the community for spatial computing is still very small. And these are people that have actively worked on and with this technology for years, sometimes decades.
Some were snatched up by Apple, Unity and others, but a lot of them are sitting around right now. I bet many are thinking, “Hey, should I just do my own thing on Apple Vision Pro?” Or “Hey, should I talk to an Apple app studio about bringing my favorite iPhone App to the Vision Pro?”
Microsoft and Meta just handed Apple the biggest advantage ever: A highly skilled developer ecosystem with nothing else to do. You can’t buy these sorts of situations.
What I think
The Vision Pro is weird. As a product, it doesn’t make sense. Apple knows that. But they chose to crudely emulate a future vision instead of waiting for it to be able to exist.
And incidentally it’s rather good timing. Many developers will have a lot of fun with this abomination.
And for Microsoft and Meta (and all others), the message is clear: “Tick, tock, time is running out.”