The Everything Headset

In the run-up to WWDC 2023, reporting about Apple’s forthcoming AR/VR headset have really begun to heat up.

In this week’s Power On newsletter, Mark Gurman wrote a bit about how Apple may pitch the device to customers and developers.

Forgive the long block-quote, but I think it’s important to go over what he believes the headset will be capable of doing:

  • The ability to run most of Apple’s existing iPad apps in mixed reality, which blends AR and VR. That includes Books, Camera, Contacts, FaceTime, Files, Freeform, Home, Mail, Maps, Messages, Music, Notes, Photos, Reminders, Safari, Stocks, TV and Weather.
  • A new Wellness app with a focus on meditation, featuring immersive graphics, calming sounds and voice-overs.
  • Being able to run the hundreds of thousands of existing third-party iPad apps from the App Store with either no extra work or minimal modifications.
  • A new portal for watching sports in virtual reality as part of Apple’s push into streaming live games and news.
  • A large gaming focus, including top-tier titles from existing third-party developers for Apple’s other devices.
  • A feature to use the headset as an external monitor for a connected Mac.
  • Advanced videoconferencing and virtual meeting rooms with realistic avatars, ideally making users feel like they’re interacting in the same place.
  • New collaboration tools via the Freeform app that let users work on virtual whiteboards and go over material together.
  • A new VR-focused Fitness+ experience for working out while wearing the headset (though this feature likely won’t arrive until later).
  • A way to watch video while immersed in a virtual environment, such as a desert scene or in the sky.
  • Users will also be able to operate the headset in several different ways, including by hand and eye control and Siri. It also will work with a connected keyboard or controls from another Apple device.

Most folks would look at this list and think, “My word, Apple has no idea what this device is for!”

In fact, Gurman says as much in his column:

As the company gets ready to unveil the product in June, that question is still hanging in the air. Apple hasn’t really found a killer app that will make the roughly $3,000 headset a must-have item. Instead, it’s trying another tactic: throwing everything but the kitchen sink at consumers.

Apple plans to pack the headset with a variety of features — games, fitness services, even an app for reading books in virtual reality — and hope that buyers find something they like.

Loads of people have compared this strategy to the Apple Watch’s launch, which many believe was unfocused and a bit messy.

We’ll come back to the Apple Watch, but first, I want to take a look at Apple’s other device launches over the years and see how they’ve changed.

iPod (2001)

In the fall of 2001, Steve Jobs hosted a low-key event in Apple’s Town Hall, announcing Apple’s first non-Mac product since his return to the company.

The pitch was simple:

1,000 songs in your pocket

Over time, the iPod would gain all sorts of capabilities, including viewing photos and video, the ability to play games and more, but at the start it was a focused, purpose-made device. It played your music, and it did it pretty darn well.

iPhone (2007)

Just six years later, Jobs would unveil the iPhone. The introduction is legendary:

"An iPod, a phone and an Internet communicator"

The iPhone has evolved into the primary computer for millions of people, but it’s beginnings were rather humble. The App Store wouldn’t launch until a year after the first iPhone went on sale, and other features like cut/copy/paste and multi-tasking wouldn’t come for another year or two. It took even longer for iOS to grow into the general-purpose operating system it has become.

All of that said, it’s notable that the first feature Jobs mentioned was an iPod. Heck, the music app on early versions of iOS was named “iPod.” From the start, the iPhone was designed to absorb the iPod as the market started to move away from the dedicated media player. If someone was going to cannibalize the iPod, Apple wanted to be the company to do it.

That meant that the sales pitch for the original iPhone was a good bit more complicated than the iPod’s. The iPhone was a phone and an iPod and the Internet in your pocket.

iPad (2010)

Three years later, the original iPad was introduced. Jobs spoke about phones and laptops, and asked if there was room for a third category of device. For something to justify its existence, he argued, it needed to be better at some key things:

The iPad's task list

The list included browsing the web, checking email, viewing photos and video, listening to music, playing games and reading digital books.

I don’t know about you, but that’s a lot of what I do on my devices. During the keynote, Jobs and his colleagues showed the device handling those tasks and more. While critics decried the iPad as “just a big iPhone,” Apple argued it was a general-purpose computer that was ushering in the post-PC age. As such, its introductory set of features had to be more complex and broad than the iPhone before it.

Apple Watch (2014)

We’ve finally made it to the Apple Watch, the first new product category Apple entered in the Tim Cook era. Announced at the same event as the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, it was the first time Apple used the words “one more thing” since Steve’s passing in 2011.1

There’s no doubt in my mind that the Apple Watch’s announcement was meant to to echo the iPhone’s some seven years earlier, constructed around three tentpole features:

Apple Watch introduction

The Apple Watch, Apple said, was a precise and customizable timepiece, an intimate way to connect and communicate and, lastly, a comprehensive health and fitness companion.

Admittedly, this wasn’t as catchy as the iPhone’s introduction, but it highlighted the areas in which Apple thought the Watch could be impactful.

The rest of the keynote showed how the Apple Watch could fit into every day life, becoming a little iPhone strapped to your wrist, despite being extremely dependent on the iPhone in your pocket. Even this wasn’t that far removed from Jobs demoing the handful of built-in apps on the original iPhone, at least in spirit.

A bunch of the initial Apple Watch reviews all had a common theme, however: that Apple wasn’t quite sure what the device was good for, and that users would need to figure that out for themselves. The Verge’s Nilay Patel, writing in 2015, summed it up well:

The Apple Watch is one of the most ambitious products I’ve ever seen; it wants to do and change so much about how we interact with technology. But that ambition robs it of focus.

Over time, it’s clear that some of the features of those early days were more important than others. Today, most folks buy an Apple Watch for its notification and fitness features, with more generalized tasks being less important that it seemed they would be nine years ago when it was introduced. Apple and its customers have found common ground in what the Watch is good for and watchOS and its hardware have changed to better deliver on those key items.

Was the initial rollout of the Watch a bit messy? Sure, but I don’t think anyone would argue that it hurt the product in the long run. Apple and its customers got on the same page pretty quickly.

The Headset (2023?)

That brings us to the headset, as shown in a render here via 9to5Mac:

The Headset?

If reporting is to be believed, the headset’s introduction may look a lot more like the Watch’s than the iPod’s or the iPhone’s.

Honestly, I think that is okay. We demand far more from our devices than we did when those earlier products were announced, and in a way, every device has become a general-purpose computer to varying degrees, even the Apple Watch.

Apple’s rumored broad approach with the new device could prove to be a wise one. By supporting most of the things its customers use their iPads and iPhones for, more folks may look at the headset and think, “This does something that is important to me,” and be willing to entertain a purchase.

If the headset is pitched as the next great gaming platform,2 many people would not be interested in it. Likewise, if it’s heralded as just a new way to work remotely and connect with colleagues, a bunch of people would write it off.

In a sense, every new product needs to be broad now, because consumers assume that everything is a computer that can do computer things. Splashing cold water on the headset’s upcoming announcement because it appears to lack a killer app feels premature to me. Doing a bit of everything is mere table stakes now.

  1. Tim’s voice breaking while saying the phrase is one of the most human moments we’ve seen from the CEO. 
  2. I think the “Apple is bad at gaming” take is a bit outdated, and mostly about the Mac, as the iPhone and iPad are huge gaming platforms… but that’s a column for a different time.