Luxury for everyone: thoughts on Vision Pro and Apple’s DNA

In 2009, Microsoft released an enormous 200lb coffee table with an embedded 30-inch touchscreen called Surface. Although the iPhone had been around for a little while, the larger screen made Surface feel absolutely futuristic: in the Photos app, you could toss around pictures like they were physically in front of you. It cost $10,000. Very few people ever bought it.

A little more than a year later, Apple released the $499 iPad.

Microsoft had made a $10,000 table for no one, and Apple made a $499 tablet for everyone.

This is a common theme among Apple’s most important products. They are usually built around existing ideas and technologies that have been improved and then repackaged into beautiful, premium experiences which are expensive but not unaffordable. This happened with the iMac, iPod, iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch. Whatever the product, Apple has always brought seemingly impossible levels of quality and craftsmanship to the masses. Apple is luxury for everyone.

Apple Vision Pro, however, is different. Yes, it is an undeniably beautiful product, and the software is very impressive. When I first used it, I was overcome with a sense of awe that I haven’t felt since seeing kinetic scrolling on the first iPhone. But Vision Pro costs nearly $4,000 and has enough faults that it still feels a bit like a technology demo. It is not affordable at all, and it brings nothing to the masses.

Vision Pro feels bizarrely un-Apple in a way that only a few products have before, like the 18-karat gold Apple Watch, the $700 Mac Pro wheels, or the $1,000 Pro Display XDR stand. These recent Apple products are shameful Veblen goods that do not offer value commensurate with their price. And while the raw technology in Vision Pro is perhaps worth $4,000 today, I do not think it delivers nearly $4,000 in value. This is the exact opposite of most other transformative Apple products.

So what happened?

Good product design is a careful dance between what’s best and what’s possible. For the iPhone, building the right combination of technology and software at a practical price point was an enormous challenge that Apple pulled off. But it took years and years of development for the required technology in the iPhone to reach a price that was suitable for the market. When things were cost-prohibitive, the designers of the iPhone found clever workarounds or made hard trade-offs. The first iPhone wasn’t a perfect product, but it was designed against reasonable constraints.

I don’t think Vision Pro was designed against reasonable constraints. If the goal was to make the equivalent of the iPod in a sea of mediocre MP3 players, Vision Pro hasn’t succeeded. It isn’t a disruptive VR headset because it isn’t even in the same market as its competitors, the majority of which are ten times cheaper.

The goal, then, must have been to make a totally new product segment that only incidentally resembles the current VR market. Apple hints at this strategy by calling Vision Pro a “spatial computer.” The problem here is that if a spacial computer can’t be made today for under $4,000, then the technology simply isn’t ready. In its current state, I think Vision Pro is antithetical to Apple’s DNA: it isn’t accessible to most people, it is large and inelegant, and the platform itself has nebulous use cases.

In my experience, whether it is hardware or software, there are two fundamental ways to approach product design. The first (and most common) philosophy is to build from the bottom-up, which involves assembling low-cost and basic components first, and then working to build up from those components to an experience that reaches a desired price-quality equilibrium. The second philosophy starts the other way around, by considering the maximum reasonable quality of an experience first–even if it is impractical–and then working over iterations to build down the product until it reaches an acceptable experience-cost equilibrium by making careful trade-offs and cleverly working around constraints.

An example of a bottom-up product is the Amazon Kindle, which is made of inexpensive, flimsy injection-molded plastic and shows no signs of craftsmanship – it simply does what it says it will do. On the other hand, consider the Apple Watch, which is, even without its electronics, a beautiful object. It takes only a few moments of touching the watch case to realize that an incredible amount of thought was put into the materials, angles, and curves, and that perhaps even novel manufacturing techniques had to be invented to construct it.

The top-down approach is more expensive and takes longer, but – as long as you have reasonable constraints and goals – the quality of the output is exponentially better.

Apple Vision Pro seems to have subscribed to neither of these approaches, or its designers started with the top down approach and then gave up before hitting a reasonable equilibrium. It’s both absurdly expensive and has extreme tradeoffs that don’t seem to hit any cohesive product design strategy that would make it a great standalone product. It also has strange extraneous features like EyeSight, which must be incredibly expensive for what they accomplish (rather poorly).

What was the purpose of launching Apple Vision Pro now, when it is incapable of bringing anything new to the masses? It’s not luxurious, even though it’s well constructed. And at its current price, it’s definitely not for everyone. Essentially, it’s an expensive tech demo. Apple’s other groundbreaking products, like iPod, iMac, iPhone, and Apple Watch were all very focused products that launched with reasonable features at reasonable prices. They relied on Apple’s soul to guide their development. Vision Pro, it seems, not so much.

Apple’s DNA and culture used to drive the company to make $499 tablets for everyone – a feat that seemed impossible at the time. But today, like the $10,000 Surface Table in 2009, Apple now makes a $4,000 headset for no one.

 
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