Apple’s long-awaited mixed reality headset is looking increasingly likely to launch this year, but a new report hints at a troubled development process that echoes a classic Apple product with a mixed reputation.
The Financial Times (opens in new tab) suggests that Apple CEO Tim Cook has decided to “press ahead with a debut this year” for a mixed reality headset, which apparently looks like a pair of lightweight ski goggles and will combine AR and VR experiences.
In making this decision, however, Cook apparently “overrode the early objections of Apple’s designers to wait for the technology to catch up to their vision.” Given that the Apple VR headset is apparently seven years in the making and “expected to cost around $3,000,” it’s hard not to hear that speculation and think of the Apple Newton.
Just 30 years ago, in May 1992, Apple announced a fairly groundbreaking product called the Newton MessagePad, which ushered in a new portable computing platform called the PDA (or Personal Digital Assistant). The Newton was also six years in development, bogged down by internal disputes and prohibitively expensive at launch (it cost $900, or about $1,860 / £1,540 / AU$2,400 in today’s prices).
Of course, we have no way of knowing whether the fate of Apple’s headset – rumored to be called the Apple Reality Pro – could eventually follow the same path as the Newton, which was discontinued in 1997. Apple will certainly always to ensure it won’t, including launching “a marketing push for the new product” (according to the Financial Times).
But the similarities don’t stop there – the FT also says Tim Cook is banking on the headset “to secure his legacy” as it’s “the first new computing platform to be developed entirely under his leadership”.
Likewise, in the late 1980s, Apple CEO John Sculley—whose boardroom spat with Steve Jobs led to the latter’s departure from the company—had stabilized Apple and made it profitable again in a similar fashion to Tim Cook, but he was looking for an innovative release. that would define the future of computing.
Like the Newton, Apple’s mixed reality headset will be built around innovative new input systems, if the rumors are correct. Newton’s special talent was handwriting recognition software, which eventually laid the groundwork for the iPhone. And according to Bloomberg, owners of Apple’s AR/VR device will interact with it using their hands and eyes.
Initially, though, it looks like the headset, which we expect to be unveiled at WWDC 2023 in June, will be strictly for well-heeled adopters. According to the FT, Apple “only expects to sell around one million units of its headphones in the first 12 months”, which is less than the corresponding sales of the iPhone or Apple Watch during their debut year.
Analysis: reality check for Apple headphones
Apple’s mixed reality headset may ultimately prove to be a bigger iPhone-sized success than a damned Apple Newton, but these reports of a troubled development process only add to the similarities between the devices.
The Financial Times points out that the first releases of Apple’s new products are not usually big sellers, and this was especially true of the original Apple iPhone and Apple iPod. The latter sold less than five million units in total, which puts expectations for first-year sales of one million units for Apple’s AR/VR headset during the first year.
But none of Apple’s previous game-changers this century – the iPhone, Apple Watch, AirPods and iPod – have been priced as high as the rumored $3,000 for Apple’s incoming headphones. If that’s the price or close to it, then it’ll likely be a first-generation product whose ultimate purpose is to plant a flag for a genuine mass-market gadget.
When the Newton finally arrived in 1993 – more than a year after its first public demonstration – it was technologically impressive, but its main features, such as handwriting recognition, did not work well enough. Hence his famous appearance on The Simpsons (opens in new tab)when Dolph wrote a note for Newton to “Beat up Martin”, which he duly translated to “Eat up Martha”.
Clearly, Apple’s incoming earphones will have to do a better job of living up to the significant hype that has been built up over the past few years. We may finally get two more Apple AR/VR headsets in 2025, according to respected analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, including a much-needed cheaper model. And these could eventually lead to Apple Glasses, which the FT says could “take several more years”, according to “most in the tech industry”.
But the first device for Apple’s xrOS augmented reality platform will have to avoid Newton’s pitfalls if it’s to become Apple’s next big hit.