The Apple Vision Pro as of February 15

Last year I predicted how the Apple Vision Pro might fare. Two weeks ago, as the product was launching, I compared my old predictions with my new ones. Now I’d like to do some further modifications to see what I got wrong and provide some additional colour.

New information since last week

  • Zuckerberg responded to AVP and compared it unfavourably to the Meta Quest 3
  • The big news story is how many people are returning their headsets
  • My mom said she doesn’t understand the ads
  • The New York Times called the product lacking “polish and purpose”
  • And of course lots of people love their headsets and are excitedly talking about their experience online
  • The conventional wisdom is that for $500 you get better games and hand tracking, and a better overall product. Apple’s $3500 AVP is slick, but not worth it.

I don’t completely disagree with any of these criticisms, but I would add some nuance to each of them. I’ll get to that in a minute, but let me go compare my previous comments to how I feel now.

What I thought then vs now

The main thrust of my article two weeks ago was:

  • It’s too expensive
  • It’s too heavy
  • The eyes look goofier than I expected
  • The future is perfect passthrough, this is now table stakes
  • The ambition was bigger than I expected
  • The interface was smoother than I expected
  • The long term success/failure won’t be Beat Saber, it will be in how well they do the “spatial computing” concept — macOS apps, specially designed AVP apps, etc.
  • Competition never understands that Apple’s vertical integration is how they win, not one-off features

And most of these things still reflect how I feel, with some minor tweaks:

  • I didn’t realise Meta Quest 3 could do Mac apps!
  • I didn’t realise Meta Quest 3 passthrough was decent!

And those two bulletpoints are enough to tank my entire premise. No, Meta doesn’t have access to iPad or AVP apps. But yes, they do have access to Mac apps. And no, Meta doesn’t have amazing eye tracking or as immersive of an experience as AVP … but they’re no slouches either. So where does that leave us?

Zuck has some good points

I thought Zuck’s video was fair. His premise is the Meta Quest 3 is a better product, even if they were the same price. I think he makes a strong case for that — it’s lighter, has more native apps, games, and experiences, and has controllers for more precise tracking in space — but this is where details matter. Is Quest 3 better for Beat Saber? Of course. Is Quest 3 better for people who want to select things with precision, using controllers? Also yes. But how many people want to gear up with controllers each time they use mixed reality? That’s where things get a lot more unclear in my mind.

When the iPod first came out, it was criticised by Bluetooth fans for not having Bluetooth. When MacBook Air came out without a DVD drive, it was criticised for not having a DVD drive. iPads went through this when they shipped without a UNIX command line. But in all three cases, average users didn’t miss the features nearly as much as the enthusiasts assumed they would. I’ll go further: the products were better because they dropped the enthusiast’s most loved features, which sounds counter-intuitive. It feels like saying “You quench your thirst by not drinking water,” but a better comparison is “No matter how thirsty you are, don’t drink salt water.” Some features make the product worse. Handheld controllers for VR are salt water.

Or a stylus and keyboard on a phone.

You see where I’m going with this.

The details and execution are going to matter a ton

I’ve always thought people are going to overlook how insurmountable Apple’s tight hardware/software/cloud/credit card ecosystem is, and Zuck publicly (and I presume, privately) is falling right into the Ballmer trap. He spent 2 seconds in his video showing floating windows to say “See, we can do productivity too.” So he walks away from the comparison smiling, thinking “I’ve got all the same features, with more apps, at a lower price. Bring it on!”

As a product designer and strategy guy, I see something different.

He thinks his controllers are a great idea, like Blackberry’s keyboard or Palm’s stylus. I think they’re a horrible idea from old thinking, like Blackberry’s keyboard or Palm’s stylus. He thinks Meta has a competitive productivity situation, but that’s a stretch. Here’s what my research found:

Apple Vision Pro’s productivity experience

  1. Flip open your laptop and your macOS screen immediately appears
  2. You get access to any app on the Mac via this window
  3. You also have apps specially made for AVP or iPad, and they work in their own windows. You can place as many as you want.

Meta Quest’s productivity experience

  1. Install 3rd party software to stream your Mac to your headset
  2. Install the same software on your headset
  3. From the OS’s special toolbar, select “Applications” and launch the app
  4. Now your Mac window is floating in front of you. (You get 3 windows, total)

On Quest, the resolution is worse, which matters a lot for reading things on screen. The hand gestures you use are much more complicated. The latency is worse. I believe you can only show three windows, but I could be wrong. Simple things like a Mail client aren’t available (according to the YouTube research I did) so you’re stuck doing everything from a web browser. I presume there’s nothing preventing Google from making a Gmail client for Quest 3, but there are a lot of great software products, not just email, in the App Store that will never port over to an entirely new system. That’s not a small hurdle. I’d argue it’s a big enough gap that it’ll be unsurmountable, as it always is against Apple.

Operating systems and apps matter a lot a lot

Apple Vision Pro has done everything it can to make the operating system metaphorically transparent. It’s trivial for your favourite iPad app to be brought over to AVP with full fidelity. The only time you’ll directly experience an administrative OS task is when launching the app from the Home Screen, or resizing windows to your liking. macOS support is similar. You flip open your laptop and the screen is floating there in space. That’s about as “two boxes, one arrow” as a UX flow can possibly be, and as a designer that’s an A+.

Meta Quest has a tougher kill to climb. They need you to install, learn, and use a completely new OS, with its own store and interface conventions. It can’t augment your existing software library, so it needs you to start from scratch. If you love using OmniFocus (a todo list app) on your Mac, you go to the Oculus store and search for “todo list” there’s a single result for a product called SWORDS OF GARGANTUA, which costs $24.99 and I’m guessing it won’t sync with Taskpaper. I could go into all the reasons this is a problem, but I think you get it. Lack of apps, people have software they love and expect to keep using, syncing across platforms via the cloud, a max of three windows, etc etc. D-.

And that’s before you get into the complex hand gestures and controllers required to pilot this OS. I get it, controllers are great for games. But they’re awful for the actual productivity tasks an office worker will have to perform every day. If I need to set down physical controllers to switch between tasks, you’ve lost me. (“If you see a stylus, they blew it.”) And even the hand tracking requires an arcane set of commands to do basic things. It’s too much for most people, and always will be.

Credit where credit is due

The Meta Quest 3 is indeed better at passthrough and Mac mirroring than I thought. That definitely removes a lot of my enthusiasm for just how far ahead AVP is in version one. I thought I was comparing a 2007 iPhone to a 2007 Blackberry, when in reality the comparison is closer to Android.

This is where Zuckerberg and I agree, but I think he’d find the comparison exciting and I think it’s damning. If you think Apple succeeded with iPhone despite being a “closed walled garden,” I think you’re missing the plot. You might genuinely believe that people want to go back to the Windows era, where choice, flexibility, and power won out over simplicity and ease-of-use. You might even squint and believe your product is has a “good enough” UX and that the real differentiators in the market will be games and price.

But let’s not be revisionist here. I worked in tech support for many years, and can confidently report than non-nerds have always hated their Windows computers for being too difficult to use. In hindsight, non-nerds loved the Blackberry product for always-on internet access, but hated the actual interface/experience, compared to simpler products that came later. (They’re no longer in business, which is worth noting) Linux on Desktop has gotten better and better, but never reached the quality bar needed to be a viable system for non-nerds, because Mac and even Windows were just easier to use.

The fight for the headset space won’t be between “closed” and “open” for two reasons. First, Quest is very much a closed systems, despite Meta’s claims to the contrary. But even if they were truly open source, the fight for the future is the same as we’ve seen in the past. The better product will win. I think Zuckerberg would agree with that statement, and is pretty confident that he does indeed have the better overall product. (“Same features, plus we do more, plus we’re cheaper.”) But what I see is Desktop Linux, on my face, requiring controllers and odd hand gestures, and none of the apps I’m used to. Who understands the mainstream market more, me or Zuckerberg? Apple or Meta? We’ll see!