It’s often remarked that technology is a place for startups to be transformative and that the big business dinosaurs are just one asteroid away from extinction. And it’s true. Technology can change quickly. Just look at how we’re all feeling a bit Luddite because of the advances made in machine learning within the past two years. Yet track records do also matter when it comes to technology. Apple, for example, rarely makes big expensive mistakes or, at least, it hasn’t made too many in recent years. Sure, there was the Apple Newton back in 1993, but, since then, very few Apple-branded products have gone the way of Google Glass or Microsoft Zune, reduced to expensive landfill to silence the wags of the late-night talk shows.

That doesn’t mean that Apple doesn’t have its doubters. At every launch of a new product – especially those of a kind not seen before – some will claim that the World’s Richest Company has gone barking mad. Remember the cynicism about the Apple Watch? Remember the cynicism about the iPhone? Remember, even, the cynicism about the original iPod? Yet the evidence is there on your wrist, in your pocket, or in your bag. Apple knows exactly what it’s doing.

Apple has a simple business model: wait for technology to mature, get the details right, and then package it beautifully, usually in a chassis made from precision-cut aluminium, for which you can charge a very high price. And much as it pains this long-time PC user to write this: it really does work. Apple makes the best hardware. But it also knows it makes the best hardware and prices it accordingly.

This brings us to this week and the announcement of Apple’s most expensive bit of consumer(ish) kit: the Apple Vision Pro. If there’s a clear indicator of Apple’s current thinking, then it’s found in the price. Even by Apple’s standards, $3,499 is a lot of money. But how does that stack up against the competitors? Well, there are no competitors. Which is the point.

Apple has something it knows people will want. It also understands that many early adopters will pay a premium price to own something unique. It’s also a fairly good bet that it is going to be a success. What’s more, it’s going to change the tech landscape.

Those might sound like pretty big claims, but Monday’s launch felt very reminiscent of another seminal moment in Apple’s history and that was the launch of the iPhone in June 2007. Both it and this new headset share similarities. They don’t just establish new products but, more fundamentally, a new class of products. Both bring together existing technologies and combine them into a single functional device which we haven’t quite seen before. In the case of the iPhone, it combined the traditional phone with a music player, a video display, a calculator, and every other kind of functionality that would arrive in the form of apps.

With the Apple Vision Pro, Apple is taking something that looks like those VR headsets relatively popular in the world of gaming, but it is producing a device you can wear all day so it can overlay a virtual world on your surroundings. This technology is called “Augmented Reality” and it isn’t new. Microsoft led the way with the launch of HoloLens a few years ago but their very limited and crude solution didn’t gain traction. Google tried similar with Google Glass but it too had many problems (not least in terms of privacy) and wasn’t ready for the mainstream.

Apple waited. And waited. And then waited some more. It waited so long that many doubted if it would ever enter the Augmented Reality space. And now it has, and it looks like the wait was worth it.

Apple waited until the technology had matured enough to produce a high-class consumer experience. Apple calls it a “spatial computer”, but these words are fairly meaningless in the way that “mobile phone” doesn’t begin to explain what those devices do. The Vision Pro will function as a TV screen, movie theatre, virtual office, and much more yet to be determined. One of the least talked about moments of the presentation was very significant. Apple is partnering with Unity, a software company whose development environment has become popular with hobbyists and professionals alike. It offers a relatively easy way to create apps and games and doesn’t require the time and manpower of the more powerful Unreal Engine used to create most video games. Unity is going to open up the Apple Vision Pro to new experiences very quickly.

Underpinning this is a device that reportedly offers the kind of clarity with a wide field of view (a problem that plagued the HoloLens) that the industry has been working towards. The sharpness of the image being delivered to each eye is above anything offered by rivals, though offset by a rather weak graphics chip inside the device. Again, this is why it’s not a VR device. In simple terms: the graphics you see require raw computing power. Usually, that’s done by lots of chips inside a PC or Mac where they run hot and expensive. To do the same inside a small headset requires compromises, hence why this won’t be creating cutting-edge video game experiences. It’s doing something else, and it should be judged as something else.

This brings us to what wasn’t said and can only be intuited. Notably, Apple is launching a Vision Pro. That “Pro” isn’t accidental. It has other products in the Pro range – the iPad Pro, the Macbook Pro, and the iPhone Pro – so we can assume there will be non-pro models of the Apple Vision, with a cheaper price point.

At the moment, the high price will mean it attracts developers, early adopters, and those people wealthy enough to buy status symbols. When some AAA list rapper appears wearing one in public, we can be sure the Augmented Reality Age is finally upon us – and it has always been a matter of when, not if, we’d make the leap into that augmented future.

Competitors, meanwhile, are already well placed to follow where Apple leads. Sony has its PlayStation VR product, which launched in an updated form, PSVR2, earlier this year. It is a pure VR device but significantly cheaper and limited in what it can do (it also needs to be plugged into a PS5 console). They do, however, have that tech and experience to build on. Then there’s the offer from MetaQuest, the clumsily rebranded company formerly known as Oculus and owned by Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg recently announced its next headset, the Meta Quest 3, which will do many of the same things as Apple’s device but at a lower price. 

The experiences will not be the same, however. None of these products do anything like the Vision Pro even if the fundamental technology is not that different. But this is about using available technology in subtle and creative ways, eking out a competitive advantage through good design and just a bit of marketing magic. That, in essence, is the Apple business model. Cheaper alternatives will appear and then we’ll be having the same discussion about the relative effortlessness of interfaces – the way Apple uses simple hand gestures to control the device versus devices such as the Meta Quest which uses controllers – as we had about the differences between iPhone and Android.

Apple Vision Pro launches next year, and it is of course too early to say that Apple has done it again but let’s say it anyway. Apple has done it again.

@DavidWaywell

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