SAN FRANCISCO — Anyone who was at Apple’s 2016 World Wide Developers Conference keynote will tell you it was jam-packed with software platform information. But it was also notable for what it didn’t contain.
There were no hardware teases. No Apple Car mentions (aside from the Siri-CarPlayupdates). And perhaps most tellingly, no virtual reality or augmented reality promises, even as just about every other major tech company invests heavily in VR and AR.
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It’s easy to see why Apple didn’t mention hardware: WWDC is a software event. Even a glimpse of something new like the Mac Pro (in 2013) is rare, and certainly not to be expected. No one expects Apple to slip a major car announcement inside its developer event. If and when the fabled iCar arrives, it will get its own unveiling. In the meantime, Apple will continue to enhance CarPlay with smarter maps and Siri intelligence.
But what of VR and AR?
Over the last few months, Facebook, Microsoft and Google have all brought this technology to their developer conferences. Apple’s main mobile competitor, Samsung, already has one of the most popular and widely recognized headsets on the market. Sony is teeing up SonyPlayStation VR. HTC Vive is shipping, developers are programming for the HoloLens Developer’s Kits they received in March. Facebook’s Oculus Rift is already in consumer hands.
The VR/AR market is predicted to grow into a $150 billion industry by 2020, and has all the earmarks of a hot market. And Apple CEO Tim Cook never once uttered the words “virtual reality” or “augmented reality” during the WWDC 2016 keynote.
Still, if you think that means Apple doesn’t care about these bleeding edge technologies, you’d be wrong.
“It does not surprise me that Apple has not entered the VR space yet,” said analyst Creative Strategies President Tim Bajarin. “Apple, as well as many others, see VR in its very early stages and is watching how this market develops.”
Watching and waiting for a market develop, especially in a technology where consumer expectations and product reality are out of sync, is just how Apple does things. It’s rarely first or even second to a market. Sometimes, as in the case of TV sets, it decides to go a different way.
Other times, Apple waits until the dust has settled to deliver a fully realized, game-changing consumer product like the iPod, iPhone or iPad. Each followed years of competitive development and even considerable success. (MP3 players and feature phones did just fine before Apple came on the scene.)
Tim Cook never once uttered the words “virtual reality” or “augmented reality” during the WWDC 2016 keynote
Apple’s entry into any consumer market usually represents Apple’s ideal vision for how that category should work for consumers. And the current state of the art in virtual reality still requires connection to a powerful PC.
Free-standing devices like Samsung’s Gear VR headsets are apparently considered too heavy by Google. Its vision for virtual reality, as outlined in the company’s Day Dream spec, calls for touch controls to move to a hand-held remote.
This kind of uncertainty – should all the power be in the headset or on a connected PC? Should gesture controls be on your head or in your hand? – is just the kind of thing Apple likes to avoid.
“Apple is waiting for the technology and experience to come together in a way that is natural and easy to use for the consumer,” Moor Insights and Strategy President and principal analyst Patrick Moorhead told me. “I would expect Apple to target a completely untethered mixed reality experience with at least 4K resolution per eye.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by most Apple watchers. Now is not the time for Apple to dive into VR/AR. “Apple tends to wait until some of the early market undulations settle down enough for them to come forward with a solution they know will be in demand at mass market volumes, and I just don’t think VR/AR are at that point yet,” said Gartner analyst Brian Blau.
Behind the scenes
When it comes to Apple, waiting rarely means sitting on your hands.
Aside from Apple CEO Time Cook calling VR “really cool” in a January earnings call, Apple has yet to publicly comment in detail on its approach to virtual and augmented reality. The company would not comment for this article.
But Apple has snapped up companies that could add the kind of vision recognition systems necessary to power augmented reality, at least.
“They have a suite of graphics and device patents that show they do have some IP to protect,” said Blau. “They also made interesting acquisitions over the past few years on core immersive hardware and software: Primesense and Metaio.”
We’ve also seen at least one VR or AR headset patent application from Apple, though of course a patent doesn’t necessarily mean intent to build anything. Sometimes a company files a patent simply to protect an idea – a defensive measure against similar ideas from competitors even if they have no intention of building their own VR headset.
Not the place or the time
As much as we might like Apple to take a cue from Facebook or Google and tease developers (and us) with a futuristic video of an Apple VR experience, that’s just not how Apple works — or how it uses the Developers Conference keynote stage.
At some point in the future, Apple will unveil hardware that handles both realities
Unlike Google and Microsoft, which have significant numbers of third-party platform partner (those who build devices to run on, respectively, Android and Windows), Apple’s third-party partners are almost entirely app and accessory builders.
“With Microsoft and Google, they need to get their hardware partners ready so they must talk farther out into the future,” explained Moorhead.
Apple doesn’t have to do that. It builds the iPhone, iPad, Apple TV and Apple Watch. Almost everyone else in its ecosystem just builds the software that runs on these devices.
Apple’s VR/AR push would surely work the same way. At some point in the future, Apple will unveil hardware that handles both realities and show off near-complete VR and AR apps from a very small set of trusted, pre-briefed developers, and then encourage the assembled developers at a future WWDC to start writing applications that run on the Apple VR/AR device.
Can Apple arrive late to the party and win? Certainly. “Even if late, they could still have a dominate position in VR — if their offering is great and works well with their ecosystem,” said Bajarin.
If history is any measure, Apple’s VR/AR tardiness will only spell bad news for competitors.