One of the most difficult things for persistent Apple critics to grasp is that the company’s success — at least, as measured by Wall Street — isn’t as dependent on innovation as might be assumed from the company’s most common (and stinging) criticism. Besides the Apple Watch, Apple hasn’t launched a category-defining product in years, but that hasn’t stopped it from repeatedly breaking sales records or becoming the United States’ first trillion-dollar company.
Even so, Apple followers have been anxiously waiting for something new and exciting to shake things up, and up until this week, augmented reality glasses — iGlasses, for short — seemed to be the most likely candidate for imminent release. They’ve reportedly been in the works for years, could organically build upon Apple’s iPhone and wearable ambitions, and would instantly put to rest any discussion that Apple wasn’t innovating. Executed properly, nothing would seem more appropriately “2020” (or 20/20) to consumers than Apple-designed glasses featuring holographic visuals.
But a questionable report yesterday from DigiTimes has thrown cold water on that scenario. Citing “people familiar with the situation,” the hit-and-miss Taiwanese publication claims that Apple quietly disbanded its AR/VR hardware team in May following the departure of its reported leader, Avi Bar-Zeev. Before spending nearly three years at Apple, Bar-Zeev was the principal architect for Microsoft’s HoloLens, cofounded what became Google Earth, and worked for Amazon on an unspecified “new stealth project.” If anyone could envision a next-generation AR headset and marshal a large company’s resources to build it, Bar-Zeev looked like an ideal candidate.
Unlike these other companies, however, Apple has openly advertised its history of saying “a thousand no’s for every yes,” and proudly holding off on launching products — sometimes at the eleventh hour, following much if not all of their development — because the execution or timing didn’t feel right. It has reportedly shelved fully developed concepts to await technology breakthroughs or favorable component availability, held up hardware to improve software (see: HomePod), and on rare occasion, canceled products (see: AirPower) after formally announcing them for release.
The problem with saying so many “no’s” is that they tend to disproportionately impact big and exciting initiatives. It’s easier for Apple to say “yes” to adding another iPhone camera than to build production lines for an all-new product with risky sales prospects and the potential of public disapproval. People will tolerate an ugly iPhone screen notch or a big square camera housing if the devices can do cool new things. But if iGlasses look weird, work poorly, or don’t have much software, Apple could have much bigger problems to deal with than if it released nothing at all.
Think back to 2014’s announcement of the Apple Watch. Back then, Apple CEO Tim Cook was under pressure to prove that Apple hadn’t lost its ability to innovate after Steve Jobs’ untimely death. Rather than holding the Watch back until it was perfect, Apple revealed it more than seven months before it was ready to ship, released a disappointingly sluggish first model, and then fought an uphill battle to keep developers and users interested in the platform. Even today, as the Watch has matured into a successful product family with compelling features, it lives in the shadow of the iPhones it depends upon.
DigiTimes says that industry insiders are speculating that Apple froze AR hardware development for one or more of three reasons: It couldn’t make the glasses light enough, wasn’t yet able to integrate 5G technology, or didn’t have enough AR software ready to go. If true, any one of those problems might have hurt a finished product, but Apple could have worked around most of them, unless the hardware was unbearably large. My personal guess is that Apple would have considered iGlasses viable if they were virtually identical to Nreal’s Light, only wireless, a non-trivial engineering challenge that can only be overcome as chips shrink and demand less battery power. Limited software and a lack of cellular support certainly didn’t stop Apple Watch from launching, nor did they stop it from becoming successful; iGlasses could survive at least two iterations without being wholly standalone.
Whatever the reason may be, if iGlasses aren’t coming, 2020 may wind up being another boring year for Apple. Nothing else of comparable needle-moving excitement is believed to be in the works for imminent release, which means that the spotlight will be on the seemingly inevitable (but by then, “me too”) launch of the first 5G iPhones, and the performance of previously announced news, TV, and game subscription services. Additionally, though Apple doesn’t sell nearly as many Macs as iPhones and iPads, there could be new MacBooks with fixed keyboards, and early Macs with ARM rather than Intel chips, too.
Before you finish yawning, note that the latter prospect is worthy of a double underline, as it could seriously improve the appeal of Apple’s “traditional” computers over the next several years. If you’ve been following the chip performance curves for Apple’s A-series processors and Intel’s alternatives, you already know that last year’s iPads match or eclipse some of this year’s MacBook Pros in CPU/GPU horsepower. My belief is that Apple has held back from supercharging its entry-level Intel laptops so that their transition to ARM processors will yield large day-one gains for ARM MacBook users, rather than mere parity or steps behind. We’ll have to see how that plays out over the next year or two, but I’m optimistic that MacBooks will become much better in the very near future.
If all of those things strike you as dull at this point, you’re certainly not alone. But if history’s any guide, don’t be surprised if those iterative new products boost Apple’s 2020 revenues and shares above 2019 levels. The company might have lost its reputation for disruptive innovations, but its ability to consistently improve upon past products is all but unblemished. As hard is it may be to accept, even boring products can sell exceedingly well if they’re well-executed and properly priced.
And if the DigiTimes report is wrong, which at least one well-respected insider has suggested is the case, next year’s reality might wind up being augmented by iGlasses after all. Regardless of what happens, keep your eyes on this space, as we’ll be reporting on all the latest developments as they happen.