The Biggest Decider of the Vision Pro’s Success Is Out of Apple’s Hands

The Apple Vision Pro headset was unveiled in June 2023 in Cupertino, California. Credit - Justin Sullivan - Getty Images

Over its nearly 50-year history, Apple has ushered in many new categories of era-defining personal technology: the home computer; the mp3 player; the smartphone; the tablet. Today they are attempting to do something similar for the niche and oft-derided field of augmented reality, with the release of the Vision Pro. Apple hopes that the new headset, which ships on Feb. 2, will lead to a fundamental shift in the way that we engage with the internet: Not just on rectangular screens, but all around us.

So far, signals about the Vision Pro’s potential success have been mixed. Sales have proven stronger than some analysts expected: Apple has reportedly sold out of its initial stock of 200,000 headsets, confirming that Apple still has many diehard fans willing to take the $3,499 plunge on a new product. On the other hand, early reviewers have complained about neck and eye fatigue after just half an hour of usage.

But reviews and sales numbers will ultimately have little impact on whether the Vision Pro is a lasting success, experts say. They argue that the much more important metric is whether developers create headset-specific apps over the next few years that unlock fundamentally new experiences for users.

And after weeks of speculation about whether developers would adopt the new device, Apple released some promising news: the Vision Pro will launch with more than 600 headset-specific apps. That rivals the number of apps on Meta Quest Store after four years of being in existence, estimates Gene Munster, a longtime Apple analyst who is now a managing partner at Deepwater Asset Management.

“The number of apps shows that developers are sensing that there's an opportunity for a gold rush like there was with the iPhone,” he says. “The opportunity to potentially be the Instagram, TikTok, or Office for spatial computing is in front of them—and early signs are they’re going for it.”

Making VR Cool?

The Vision Pro is Apple’s first new release since 2015. The headset resembles a pair of ski goggles that allows users to be fully immersed in apps that extend across their entire field of vision. One YouTuber, for example, posted himself simultaneously watching five NBA games via the Vision Pro—while also texting his friends and browsing the internet in separate virtual windows.

The Vision Pro provides “augmented reality” as opposed to “virtual reality,” meaning that users will be able to see the world around them while wearing it, as opposed to being confined within a completely virtual environment. Users could read from a digital recipe while throwing ingredients into an actual pot, or take a dance class while knowing how close they are to bumping into their bookcase. The Vision Pro could also play a role in interior design, allowing users to see how a different couch or wallpaper color would look inside of their living room.

Apple says the headset will kick off a new era of “spatial computing,” in which the digital and physical worlds will become increasingly blended. But at the moment, the very idea of VR and AR is off-putting to many people. Sales of mixed reality and virtual reality headsets fell 8.3% last year, according to the research firm IDC. Meta, a prime mover in this space thanks to its investment in its Quest headsets, has lost over $40 billion on its Reality Labs division since 2019, as the idea of the metaverse has failed to gain traction.

Experts say that Apple has made a crucial tweak in its marketing rollout for the Vision Pro: the company is focusing not on winning over hardcore gamers, but trying to normalize the idea of wearing a headset for everyday usage. Munster estimated that about 40% of the apps on the Vision Pro are gaming-related, compared to more than 70% available on the Quest.

“They really thought about this as not so much a gaming tool, but a business tool, that allows you to expand your working space,” Michael Kleeman, a research fellow at University of California San Diego who has been tracking Apple products since he worked there as a contractor in the ’80s. “They’re more holistically concerned about the user experience and not the whiz-bang technology.”

But the Vision Pro’s stratospheric price point of $3,499—that’s 7 times more than the Meta Quest 3—will keep many regular consumers from buying the new device. Early reviews have also pointed out significant drawbacks, including its heaviness at 21 ounces, and the additional thousands of dollars it may cost to repair them.

“Considering where the price is at and the history of negatives around wearables, generally people are taking a wait and see approach,” says Munster, who conducted an informal poll on X (formerly Twitter) last fall. “Unless you’re a tech enthusiast or a developer,  you're probably not going to buy one of these in the next year.”

Vision Pro vs. iPhone

The Vision Pro will likely not achieve any sort of cultural or market saturation any time soon. But Apple shouldn’t be immediately worried, Munster says. He points to similar headwinds that the iPhone faced when it arrived in 2007. Critics said it was far too expensive, failed to solve an actual need, and wasn’t useful to the everyday person. “It is nothing more than a luxury bauble that will appeal to a few gadget freaks,” one Bloomberg columnist wrote. 

The iPhone sold around 270,000 units in its first weekend, only slightly outpacing the Vision Pro, according to analysts. And the Vision Pro’s hefty pricetag means that its opening weekend sales far surpassed that of the iPhone’s.

Experts say that it’s too early to gauge the Vision Pro’s success because the actual uses of new products aren’t always evident at their inception. For instance, when the App Store was released in 2008, its top apps that year included Pandora Radio, AIM, Tap Tap Revenge, and Lightsaber Unleashed. Blockbuster apps that are now a fundamental part of many people’s smartphone experiences—YouTube, Spotify, Uber and Instagram—were slowly rolled out at a clip of two per year, Munster says.

Kleeman says that Apple also owes the iPhone’s eventual mass success to the development of related underlying technologies. “The original iPhone experience was really pretty bad,” he says. “It was only when we started getting the faster internet speeds that people began to like it, and you could actually stream videos of any quality.”

But just because it took the iPhone years to meet its potential doesn’t mean that the Vision Pro will come anywhere close to its predecessor’s popularity. “You have to be skeptical about where these things fit,” Kleeman says. “For many people, the smartphone is their primary mode of interacting with the world. For a headset, you have to think about where you can use it. You won’t walk around the street with it.”

Whether the Vision Pro’s impact lands closer to that of the HomePod or the iPhone depends on the activity of developers, both Kleeman and Munster say. Some major developers, like YouTube—which is owned by Apple’s rival Google—as well as Netflix have decided not to build new apps for the platform. Some developers recently lambasted Apple after the company recently announced it would charge a 27% commission on third-party payments.

But hundreds of other developers have flocked to the device, hoping that they can build sustainable businesses off of the product. And now that many more developers can actually buy the product, the number of apps will continue to increase, Munster says. “The point where it starts to snowball is when the price comes down,” he says. “I think it’s still largely in a testing chapter.”

Kleeman speculates that design software companies like Adobe or Autodesk might be among the first wave to adopt the technology and provide real use cases. “If you're designing a building, a mouse is not a very natural way to do it. Lego blocks are—and this allows you to do that,” he says.

Munster predicts that it will take five years before the Vision Pro truly breaks out. If that seems like a long time, Munster points out that the Apple Watch took a similar amount of time to reach a critical mass of users. “Whenever you have a paradigm shift, by definition, there is going to be a healthy sense of skepticism,’ Munster says. “I take some of the criticism today as very fair. But I think it misses what the iPhone went through, too.”

The key, Munster says, is if developers continue to build strong products on top of the device that people actually like to use. If that doesn’t happen, he says, “then it becomes an example of something that Apple put a lot of their brand behind and it never got off the ground—and that the company just can't innovate beyond the phone.”

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