The Apple Vision Pro as of February 1st, 2024

I love predictions. Show me someone saying there was no way Trump would win in 2016, or someone who said Apple Watch would be a flop in 2014. Show me someone who predicted Biden winning Super Tuesday or that Roe would be struck down by the Supreme Court. And most importantly, show me the receipts! I want to understand how they got there.

I’ve spent many months talking and writing about Apple Vision Pro, and it’s clear that I represent the far end of the spectrum when it comes to how impressed I am by it. The criticisms are easy to level, and I don’t disagree with any of them. It’s way too expensive, it’s way too heavy, we haven’t decided that people actually need or want something like this in our lives, the battery is weak, the battery pack is awkward, and have I mentioned it’s $3500USD? But as valid as all of those criticisms are, I’ve been surprised by how little people are talking about the flip side, the things that are actually cool or interesting.

But before we get to all that, let me dust off some old things I’ve written about the product, to keep myself honest about the things I got right and wrong. On June 7th, I wrote a post that says I was wrong about Apple Vision Pro. I called out these items:

  • I thought people would hate it more
  • I was sure there wouldn’t be eyeballs on the front
  • I thought it would be VR, not AR
  • I didn’t realise they’d go so big on apps/macOS
  • I didn’t think the interface would be this good
  • Generally, I didn’t think they’d be this ambitious

On June 23rd, I learned enough Swift code to experience the interface in Xcode, and I started that post by saying:

I am bouncing-off-the-walls excited about Apple Vision Pro. I’m most excited about the opportunity to use the device to have multiple screens. I want to put my todo list on the wall beside me. I want to put a concert video on the wall in the corner as if I had a big TV. I want to have an infinite Figma canvas to play in. I’ve even started fooling around with Swift and 3D rendering again so maybe I can make some simple apps. I have plenty of ideas of web experiments I’d love to move into native code.

On January 12th, a few weeks ago, someone asked what I thought of the product on Slack and I said:

I believe we will look back and see that Apple cracked the code, just like with iPhone. To me, the dividing line is the pass through technology. I believe we will look back at pre-2024 headsets that have grainy, or laggy, or non-existent pass through and wonder wtf we were ever thinking.

I think we are going to realise that a) seeing the person’s eyes b) them being able to see you, regardless of the software they’re immersed in, is as table stakes as “smartphones can’t have physical keyboards” or “a trackpad or mouse is a requirement for any PC”

Now — it’s super expensive and there are a kajillion things we need to wait and see. But as the meme on political Twitter goes: I’ve seen enough. Every successful device like this in the future will have fantastic pass through.

I do think the eyes are going to look ridiculous, which is why they’re hiding that part. (See also: video calls) And I agree the jury is out about how mainstream/cheap it can ever get.

But even if only 10 people ever use it, and it totally fails in the mainstream, that to me is evidence that the entire VR world will fail. Because this is the most human-centered, actually-solving-real-world-non-geek-problems attempt I’ve seen.

That is a good summary of how I felt, and how I still feel. But there was one more detail that’s colouring my whole outlook here. The business angle.

Oh, I forgot one detail: when I did my big VR pitch years back, there was one scenario I could genuinely see people getting excited about: live sporting events from great seats. I would bet good money that Apple will blow the doors open here. It’s the clearest play I can see, and they’ve been building there for years.

Live will be huge one day

I’ve spent many cycles thinking about VR, and how to actually make it cross into the mainstream. And the idea that you can watch a live sporting event from the best seats in the house is just staggering in its implication. Or what about the same thing for a Taylor Swift show (or your favourite artist)? Obviously being in the crowd surrounded by humans is the gold standard, for now. But we used to think Slack and text could never replace meetings at work and coffee with friends. Then we learned that the tech solutions are actually better in some contexts. One day, attending a concert virtually with a chat room of your friends from around the world will be seen as better in some ways than real world meet ups. Not “sort of kind of nearly as good if you squint,” I mean objectively better. It’ll happen, and we’re already seeing flickers of it.

Predictions I got right and wrong

Now that the reviews have come out, how’d I do? What things was I right about, and what was I wrong about? Much like America itself, I think the good things are better than people give credit to, and the bad things are worse than they admit.

  • I still think EyeSight is the defining feature, like iPhone having no keyboard. In time every product will consider this a table stakes feature.
  • I knew the eyes would look awkward, but they look more awkward than I expected.
  • I assumed the personas would look awkward, and they do. But much like the AirPods design or the original notch on iPhones, I think people will get acclimated to them faster than it might seem today.
  • I think the battery is a tempest in a teapot. Most people will stay plugged in rather than wandering around their house, so it’ll mostly be a non-issue.
  • The weight sucks. It just does. Even in three years, it’ll just be part of the price of admission, even as they shave off some grams here and there.
  • The interface is as close to perfection as we’ve ever seen … other than the software keyboard, which is horrible, as we’ve come to expect from Apple.
  • The hardware design is obviously well done, surprising no one.

Beating Apple

I don’t think people truly understand how far ahead Apple is here, and how screwed their competition is. I worked at Microsoft and had an internal talk I’d give called “How To Beat Apple.” In it, I explain that Apple’s dominance in some areas is so total that there’s no reasonable way to beat them head on. You can, however, beat them indirectly.

For Microsoft and Windows Phone, that meant hitting them in the Fortune 500 business use-cases, as well as the low end. For Google, it means search, but also online software in general, starting with search, and multiplied by their strength in emerging markets. For OpenAI, it means making assistants that Apple seem to be structurally incapable of competing with via their struggling Siri product. These are all winning strategies because it doesn’t require getting high end purchasers to abandon the Apple vertically integrated ecosystem, and it aims efforts where Apple is weak. Apple is weak in many places! Aim there!

Yet people keep aiming where Apple is strongest, which is not smart. It’s often overlooked in the nerd press, but people like their Apple hardware, and they like how Apple can make their hardware, software, and services to work well together. They don’t mind how the App Store is really strict and they appreciate that Apple cares so much about privacy. These are all rational points of view for people trying to buy a product they can count on. So if you’re going to dislodge them, you’ve got quite a mountain to climb, starting with their tremendous lead in App Store selection and quality, multiplied by their tight vertical integration.

Windows Phone tried to climb the mountain with their own version of the App Store, by literally paying the top 100+ apps on iPhone to make products for Windows Phone. The developers made shitty ports of their popular iOS apps, pocketed the money, and barely updated the products beyond that. In the end, it didn’t work. You can’t buy your way to a thriving app ecosystem. There isn’t enough money in the world. The tail is too long, and the moat is too wide.

Many people who will buy Apple Vision Pro aren’t looking for another platform for Beat Saber, they’re going to expect their favourite apps to work. Every single one. For me, it’d be OmniFocus, Figma, Notational Velocity, and Ulysses. For someone else, it might be Garage Band, WhatsApp , and YouTube (the web version). Everyone has a different mix of apps that they care about, and only Apple will be able to let someone put an iOS app side by side with a macOS app, wrapped in a nearly perfect UX, so you have all the apps you need on day one. That’s a hugely significant hurdle for any competitor, and no one will be able to match it.

Does that sound too strident? Does it rankle you a bit? At Microsoft, sure people hated to hear this. “It’s just software,” people would retort. Or “we’re Microsoft, we always find a way to compete.” Sure, fine. But some things transcend money or headcount. If I have an app that hasn’t been updated in 7 years but it’s absolutely vital to how I use my computer, Apple can offer this. No one else can. No one else will. The long tail is too long, and people want what they want. Or what about the command line? Any developer who uses a command line isn’t thrilled about navigating a new App Store that will sell them a new command line tool that they then have to customise. They just want to load their existing terminal app, whether it’s built into the Mac or it’s provided by an indie Mac software developer. On Apple Vision Pro, they get what they want with no effort. On Oculus, the search for “terminal” returns zero results and “command line” returns 10 games that have nothing to do with the command line. No amount of effort, money, or developer outreach will change this. Either your product runs every app on day one, or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, you can’t “catch up.” It’s not a solvable problem, because it’s structural.

But will Apple Vision Pro succeed?

Look forward 3-5 years. The product will be lighter, the eyes will be less awkward, and the price will hopefully be cheaper. One of two things will be true: Apple Vision Pro has succeeded enough to justify continued development, or it hasn’t. It’ll be an Apple Watch or a G4 Cube.

In the case where it succeeds, I predict its competitors will make all the same mistakes of the past. They’ll come up with a cheaper version of Apple’s product and hope to make their profits in volume. It’s a fine theory, but it doesn’t work in practice. The idea that someone would say “I love Apple Vision Pro, but I’d rather lose all my favourite apps and the perfect interface so it can cost less with less build quality and I can play Beat Saber” is a misread of the product positioning. Most people who wanted to tinker with VR have done it already, and most shrugged and walked away. If Apple Vision Pro succeeds — and that’s still to be seen — it will be on the back of the spatial computing/apps angle, not the fact that it’s another way to play Beat Saber. No one can compete where Apple Vision Pro excels, so even if a competitive product were $100 it still wouldn’t work. The fact is, most people don’t want VR in a new platform, segregated from their familiar apps and files. This is not because of price.

The other option is for Apple Vision Pro to fail, demonstrably proving that VR fails at the high end (even with apps), fails at the low end, and fails in the midrange. Apple is taking their best crack at this, letting money be no object, and propping it up with every strength they have. If it still can’t find an audience despite the best App Store, the best hardware, the best latency, the best pass through, and the wealthiest customers, it means the market is a dead-end. It means we left no rock unturned but VR just isn’t a thing people want, at least not in this form factor. Maybe in ten years when they’re spectacles?

(But even then, people will expect it to work with their familiar apps. There is no world where someone wants their AR glasses to be a wholly other operating system with a wholly other App Store and no ability for the two to interact)

I don’t think Apple Vision Pro will fail, though. Long time Apple watchers know how this story pans out. Version one is polished but limited, and always very very expensive. The 1984 Macintosh, the original laptops, the iMac, iPod, iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, AirPods all started out that way. And then as the years go on, Apple iterates further, the mainstream starts to notice, the price comes down, and suddenly Apple is the mindshare and profit share leader.

It doesn’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t happen every time, but it usually does. And it will happen with Apple Vision Pro, because Apple is broadcasting exactly what they’re doing to anyone who bothers to listen. They’re not attempting to make VR. They’re attempting to take everything they know about computing and slap it on your face. They’re calling it “spatial computing,” but that’s not a clever marketing term. It’s a promise. And to their competition, who can’t compete at that level, it’s a threat.