Apple's Fruitless Vision

Apple announced the Vision Pro at WWDC 2023 with the usual breathless hype they bring to all their major product announcements. There are a number of technically-minded people online who feel it can be as successful as the iPhone. But to think that is to forget how the iPhone was successful.

It’s an attractive thought which treats the iPhone as some magical perfect tech that drew people to it. Having been working in the mobile industry at the time it came out, I have a very different view as to why it succeeded.

To my mind, there were several reasons for the iPhone’s success, and only some are related to the now-ubiquitous touch gestures it pioneered.

  • A developer-friendly app store and software/hardware eco-system
  • Bundled “unlimited” internet data
  • Access to the internet with no compromises
  • Android slavishly copying and popularising the iPhone’s touch gestures and interface
  • Exclusivity and coolness factor leading to consumer demand

In the interests of brevity, I’ll focus on the part that I had the most experience with: apps.

Before the iPhone, apps were common on mobile devices. But they were extremely difficult to build, market and sell because of the conservatism and bureaucracy of mobile phone carriers. If you’re one of those pesky millenials, you’re probably currently thinking “What?” but it’s true - the mobile carriers used to have a massive influence over what users saw when they accessed the internet on their device. Plus, they controlled the official app store for their devices so, if you did install an app, it was almost certainly through the Vodafone or T-Mobile or NTT DoCoMo app store.

The genius move that Apple made was to agree with AT&T that, when they did add app support, it was with their own App Store and not the muck that AT&T served up.

Even if you did manage to somehow curry favour with the right people who could support publishing your app to every mobile carrier’s app store, you still had another massive moat to overcome: device fragmentation. Each mobile phone device was a special snowflake with it’s own unique resolution, quirks and control scheme. When we were developing mobile games at Upstart between 2004 and 2007, we had at least 100 different mobile devices with which to test. And that did not give us full coverage of every country or carrier, each of which would have their own idiosyncratic devices that you had to support.

The iPhone deliberately avoided this issue by having one resolution and one stable software platform for several years. Plus, there were never any show-stopper bugs, like horrible memory leaks in commonly used APIs (coughSymbiancough).

This and the App Store led to small developers being able to build, market and sell apps that people wanted. As a direct consequence of that, the App gold rush of the 2010s gave us many, many success stories and cemented the iPhone in the popular consciousness.

Having a neat technology certainly helps when showing it off but to be a success in the consumer market it’s not nearly enough. Based on what I saw with the iPhone, it has to be a conjunction of multiple factors that, together, make it a phenomenon and give it a gravity which means even the most tech illiterate will hear about it and want it. Right now, there’s no way that’s happening for the Vision Pro.