Has Apple's Tim Cook put everything on the line for Apple Reality?

If there's a turf war between Apple’s operations and design teams, the first-generation Apple AR glasses may not pass the taste test.

Apple, AR, Mac, iPad, iPhone, AR goggles, enterprise, speculation, opinion

Is there a turf war between Apple’s operations and design teams over the first-generation Apple AR glasses? Or are we now hearing about old news being rehashed as competitors spread negative gossip in fear of Apple’s looming AR launch?

What we think we know

We can’t be certain, but this is what happened on the Apple Rumor Merry-go-round in the last 48 hours:

  • The Financial Times claimed Apple CEO Tim Cook might have ordered the launch of the new devices this year, despite warnings from those working on the project that the product isn’t yet ready.
  • Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman later said the events described took place in 2018 when then-design lead Jony Ive pushed for AR above VR, with Apple compromising on a mixed-reality headset.
  • Gurman also said 11 high-ranking executives left the company in the second half of 2022. These were people in command of hardware, software, design, privacy, cloud, and other key verticals across the company. This may not relate to the above, but hints at some internal instability.

Apple has reportedly been working on AR glasses for seven years or more.

Years in development

I believe research began years before this, at least in 2008 when Research and Markets claimed Apple and Sony had begun developing wearable, head-mounted video displays. “These products will offer navigation features in full see-through mode as well as video viewing with a clip-on to block the background,” researchers claimed at the time.

The products are expected to be state-of-the-art with 4K OLED displays, advanced eye- and hand-tracking sensors, motion-based controls, collaboration tools, and easy-to-use development tools, including an App Store and powerful operating system.

With this in mind it is interesting that Cook took a trip to visit Sony’s cutting-edge image sensor research facility in Japan in December 2022. Sony will provide Apple with state-of-the-art image sensors for this year’s iPhone, so it’s reasonable to think those sensors will power the dozen cameras that are expected in Apple’s V.1 mixed-reality headset.

Inventing Apple Reality? It's complicated...

We know the project is complex. Already, work towards shipping these devices seems to be demanding effort from across the company with software, hardware, and services development resources being poured into a project that Apple hopes will become another significant product line.

We’ve also heard that while the ultimate aim is to produce mixed-reality glasses that are thin and light like normal spectacles, the product we’re about to experience won’t be those. The first edition will be bulky and expensive, with cheaper models expected in 2024-25 and a lightweight model more like normal spectacles not expected until 2026.  

The Financial Times report suggests that the design team wanted to wait until it was possible to ship the lighter product, but was overruled by operations, who felt the need to get a version-one product to market from which to iterate.

Is there a turf war between operations and design?

That ops now outweighs design is a change at Apple. The company's design team's word was law under previous CEO Steve Jobs.

At the same time, the operations team decision seems to make sense, because:

  • Competitors are already staking space in this emerging market, and Apple doesn’t want to appear to have fallen behind.
  • The complexity of mixed reality is far more than a hardware design issue; it also requires evolution within software and experience design, along with the evolution of a third-party development environment and more.
  • For these reasons, it makes sense to get something out and build upon it from there.

From what we have heard, Apple is not expecting massive sales and will position its first-generation device as an expensive (up to $3,000) product for first adopters and developers.

Think on the context

It is highly probable that development of these new products has taken a hit during the COVID-19 crisis. This has stretched standard approaches to collaboration, broken supply lines, raised component prices, and exposed vast political differences between former trade partners. When planning such a complex product, these operational factors will be significant.

This complexity already means earlier expectation of a 2022 (or earlier) introduction of the products has been dashed; speculation about an early 2023 launch also proved false. At best, Apple is now expected to introduce the devices to developers at WWDC and ship them this fall.

For Apple, for Cook and for increasingly powerful Chief Operations Officer Jeff Williams, the product may be a "make or break" for their reputations and legacy. If they are correct and Apple can this year bring a visionary product to market innovative enough to spark evolution in the category, their reputations will be secured.

Expect headwinds

All the same, in the run up to and shortly after the product introduction it’s reasonable to expect critics of Apple and/or Cook to cast aspersions and share critical speculation concerning what’s to come, even though most speculation pretty much says Apple will eventually make it possible to wear your Mac like you currently wear glasses.

Not for the first time in Cupertino, a lot now depends on what Apple brings to reality with Apple Reality.

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Copyright © 2023 IDG Communications, Inc.

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