We Don’t Need the Apple Vision Pro
Paris Marx is joined by Brian Merchant to discuss the vision of the future of computing offered by Apple’s Vision Pro headset and why it should be resisted.
Brian Merchant is the technology columnist at the LA Times. He’s also the author of The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone and Blood in the Machine: The Origins of the Rebellion Against Big Tech. Follow Brian on Twitter at @bcmerchant.
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Paris Marx: Brian, welcome back to Tech Won’t Save Us!
Brian Merchant: Thanks, as always. It’s been a minute here. I feel like I’ve been neglected, and I’ve been seeing all these great guests come on and waiting in the dugout going: Hey, coach put me in [Paris laughs].
PM: It’s been since December! You helped us close out the year last year with a big discussion on what went on. Listen, let’s be real, I was waiting to talk to you about your book, and then your book got delayed, so that’s why we had this delay in the Brian content. But now people are gonna get a double dose. You’re going to be on now and you’re going to be on again in a couple of months to talk about your book. People are going to get their fill of Brian Merchant.
BM: More than anyone could reasonably want. Apologies to your listeners for that in advance.
PM: They love it! They love it!
BM: Well, I don’t know about that, but I love it, so.
PM: Well, I love it and that’s what matters.
BM: That’s right.
PM: I do have to say — since it has been a quick minute since you were last on the show — there has been a big development for you. Listeners will have heard it in the introduction, but you’re now the Technology Columnist at the LA Times. So from all of us at Tech Won’t Save Us, just wanted to say congratulations on that because your column is fantastic and I have been absolutely loving it.
BM: Aw thanks so much. It’s been great. I’ve got a great editor and The Times have really supported this mission of doing very critical and hard-lined tech analysis. So, so far, so good, and it’s great to be able to opine and investigate things from a legacy perch. It’s kind of a dream job to be honest.
PM: Absolutely. Obviously, criticizing the media and coverage of tech is something that people who follow the industry, who have a critical perspective like we do, it’s something that we do pretty often. Looking at some of the New York Times coverage of AI, for example, things like that. But it’s really fantastic to see someone like you at one of these legacy publications being given the space that you’re being given. To put out these critical perspectives on these tech companies and on these technologies that we so often talk about, but don’t always see represented in these spaces. So it’s really fantastic.
BM: Thank you, but you also can feel the hunger for it too. Tech journalism, for the early part of my career as a tech journalist I probably wasn’t as critical of things as I could have been and helped to support the formation of tech journalism. Not so far always as an industry cheerleader, but I was certainly not as critical as I could have been. But then when you start telling the stories of people who are impacted by the decisions that the tech companies and the platforms. You can really feel it resonate. Some of the most popular stories I’ve done have been, basically, tech labor stories, stories about Uber and their wanton deactivation the algorithmic wage discrimination, the Veena Dubal paper. I just did one about some Uber drivers who took the fight to the State and won a bunch of back pay for drivers. And I’m getting emails and notes, and people asking me questions, and people are grateful that that kind of thing is being spoken up about. You can really feel that there is a hunger and that resonates with a lot of people — not just on the consumer side. So, I hope they keep me around.
PM: I hope so too.
BM: It’s been fun.
PM: I’ve been loving it. That Uber story you did recently was fantastic. It was great to read the story and how these drivers had found these terms in Proposition 22, which allowed a bunch of drivers across the state to get payouts based on mileage and things like that, I believe it was. But then you shared on Twitter some of the messages that one of these guys who had found this was getting from other Uber drivers and things like that, who got these payouts and just how thankful they were to receive this money, and how impactful it was for them. I think that’s so incredible.
BM: On that one, all the credit goes to Pablo Gomez and his co-conspirator there, Sergio Avedian, who really just collected the receipts. And that’s just how, especially the gig companies, they work. If there’s a corner that they can cut and get away with it, you can bet with 99% certitude, that they will do it. So here’s this corner that they had cut, and because they had used their influence to get Prop 22 passed, that spread all of these half measures across a bunch of different agencies, that it was very difficult to enforce. The state dropped the ball too, but because this was a new enforcement mechanism that the treasury wasn’t used to enforcing, so one noticed it until these two drivers did, and really put pressure on the State to do it.
Drivers are getting thousands of dollars. If you’re taking home hundreds of dollars a week, and you have to pay for your own vehicle, getting $2,000 is a huge boon. It’s a huge help. So all these elated messages were coming in that Sergio and Pablo were getting. He doesn’t have to do this! You should have him on sometime, because he’s got a million things to talk about. He keeps these giant Excel spreadsheets of every ride that he ever takes, mapping it out to make sure that his data matches his pay, and that Uber is not stiffing him. He has a show that he does on YouTube, and it’s getting a big audience, because drivers come to rely on it for tips and for backup. He’s become quite a force, so kudos to him.
PM: Absolutely. Maybe we will have to do that. I would just say, if you want to know more about that, I’ll put the link to Brian’s story in the show notes. You should obviously go there and check it out and also become a regular reader of Brian’s column because it really is fantastic. He’s covering such important stories and topics that are the kinds of things that we talk about all the time on the podcast, but it’s great to see them represented in another forum and to be reaching this wider audience that the LA Times allows. So kudos to you, Brian. Love it.
BM: Thanks, Paris. Cheers.
PM: Your cheerleaders here. We’re big fans of Brian Merchant.
BM: I’m blushing over here.
PM: Now, this isn’t just a ‘have Brian on for an hour to really pump him up, and give them a ton of compliments.’ I actually had you on to talk about something else. So June 5th, Apple has its big WWDC event. “Dub dub” for all the real Apple nerds out there, who loves to be in on the lingo. They obviously announced the operating system updates, a new MacBook ,15 inches, or whatever. But the big thing that everyone was waiting for was the new headset, the Apple Vision Pro, that they showed off and positioned as the future of computing.
BM: The one more thing.
PM: Exactly! So Tim Cook gets his moment to have his one more thing. So obviously, there’s a bunch I want to talk to you about. But initial thoughts: What did you think about this headset when Apple showed it off?
BM: Honestly, to me, it’s one of the more perplexing devices that I’ve seen from Apple, for a lot of reasons. Apple doesn’t really release a big device that’s going to be a new product category altogether, unless it feels pretty sure, usually. We can get into why this has a bunch of caveats that aren’t usually the case. But there’s some skepticism or criticism about everytime it’s done this over the last 15 years, and it has not done it a lot. I think it’s worth saying that. It was the iPad, and then the Watch. You can maybe say the same with AirPods, but there’s not the same level of expectation or the same potential investment in this product category. So with the Watch, I kind of rolled my eyes at it, but I didn’t think that it wouldn’t become successful. I think it will remain to be seen whether or not it would be successful at scale. But to me, people love Apple; they love their Apple screens. It’s an obvious place to put another screen that’s not too controversial. So I’m not surprised, necessarily, that it’s the best selling watch in the world, now.
PM: One thing I’ve been kind of noticing lately, or just taking stock of lately on the Watch point, is just picking out and noticing in so many photographs when people are wearing an Apple Watch and how common that has become. There was recently an election here in Alberta, in Canada, and the two leaders of the political parties, one of the news organizations had a photo of them both mocked up together for some story that they were running on the election. And I noticed that in the photos that they were using for the story, both of them were wearing the Apple Watch and I feel like I just see it everywhere, now. I don’t own one — I don’t understand the appeal of it.
BM: Me too. Ease of use? I do like Apple products better than Microsoft, whatever. I’ve gotten used to it; I’ve gotten accustomed. They do a nice enough job with the software and the presentation. For the relatively simple and straightforward uses that I need in my computing, it meets the bill pretty well. I had a MacBook; I bought the iPhone; I got the iPad. I don’t know if you wear a watch. Do you wear a watch?
BM: See, I don’t wear a watch. Maybe if I wore a watch, it would have become an Apple Watch. But it also always felt like a bridge too far. I don’t need the third thing. I have the iPad for watching a movie or handing to the kids to get them to be quiet at dinner or whatever [Paris laughs].
I have the iPhone, obviously. Eventually curiosity came knocking with the iPad, even though I was initially reluctant with that. And then it’s like: Oh, yeah, okay, it’s good enough for reading long form stuff and for propping up and watching a show when you’re traveling. But the Watch, I never felt that urge to get and that’s where with this Vision Pro thing, I guess. So with the Watch, I feel like people who had watches like: Well, maybe I’ll try that. It syncs up with my phone. You can kind of see the use case, I would say for me personally, has even less of a draw. I want to try it, I want to see what it’s all about. I write about technology/ I guess I’m sort of obligated to do so. But I’m genuinely curious about what they’re doing with it. I am not innately inclined to want to purchase this thing, especially since it’s so expensive. People have said in the past, every time I feel like a new Apple product comes out we do this dance and we compare the conversation or the criticisms to those in the past. So when the iPhone dropped, it got a lot of criticism for being too expensive.
It got a lot of criticism for what it didn’t have — it didn’t have hard buttons, and the Apple Headset doesn’t have controllers that you would use to probably play games like the Meta headset has. And it gets criticized for: Oh, how would you use that thing? And people say: Oh, well, people figured out how to use the iPhone. I think that’s all true to some extent, but it’s a lot more expensive. It’s really expensive — $3,500. That’s enough to put it out of reach to a lot of people. There is a sort of wealthy upper class tech set that will have no problem paying for that. But it’s enough to make people who are doing pretty well say: Do I really need this thing? When the price was read, there’s a tweet that was like: It sounds like the crowd groaning had a Wii Tennis match. It’s like: Ohhhhh. Because it’s true, they know what that means. They know that means it’s a barrier for adoption.
PM: And people knew it was going to be high, but they expected $3,000, and it was even more than that.
BM: Or I saw people thinking it was gonna be $2,499, which is the upper end of a more powerful laptop. If you get a MacBook Pro totally decked out, then it could run you that much. But all of the criticisms of every headset that’s been expensive are still applicable here. They didn’t solve the issues that have doomed every headset in the past. People are saying the same things: Oh, well, they’re going to release it at this price point. And without a real use case that’s clear, so developers can get their hands on it and find that killer app. Well, that’s what Magicleap said, and that’s what Meta has said. This is a technology or in a technology system that has a deep legacy, so we’re talking like 20 years, 30 years, where people have been basically making the same argument. Developers will eventually figure it out.
PM: Totally, it brings to mind Dave Karpf, of course, who we’re both familiar with. You quoted him in your piece that you wrote about the Vision Pro. He wrote a piece for Wired a year or two ago, something like that, where he basically called VR the rich white kid of technology. It can fail and fail and fail. And it’s always still the future, and it still gets more funding. There’s still this belief that it’s going to be followed through on and then it never does, but then it’ll still come back again. It just feels like yet again, Meta’s Metaverse has failed. We’ve had VR before that and we had the 3D TVs, and all that kind of stuff where we thought that was gonna happen. VR has been around before, and AR, and we had Google Glass and all this kind of stuff. And now Apple is doing it, but because Apple is doing it now some people want to believe that this is the time. Because when Apple gets in this is when it’s serious and this is when it’s really ready. When that’s not necessarily the case, it’s still pretty stupid.
BM: Well, the criticisms certainly still apply. I do think that there is at least a sliver there to that just given Apple’s resources and its track record. And it’s sort of cultural gravity that it has maintained, even though it hasn’t really demonstrated in this particular case, that it is any more impressive or world changing than any of the recent headsets that have come before it. It is still Apple. And I think the interesting question to me is whether or not this becomes the device that begins to erode that cultural gravity that it wields. It’s hard to bet against Apple because they do have so many resources and they do, usually, put their money where their mouth is once it’s out the gate. So to some extent, it’s a little silly to get it to the point where you do an inside baseball and horse race, tech criticism,
But it does really risk Tim Cook coming out of this with egg on his face, if this is a big failure. In our earlier conversation, we mentioned some things, like Apple has had low-key misfires. But it usually knows when to say like: Okay, we’re doing the HomePod. This is our home version of Alexa and it never takes off. But the way that they put it out onto the stage was not with extreme fanfare, they weren’t buying out huge social media ad buys and really pushing this. It wasn’t the product that was transformative in a way.They knew how much to push it, and it basically failed as much as an Apple product failed. I’m sure people are still buying it because people buy Apple stuff, but it was not a main contender. And they’ve had other products like that, that have just been like nonstarters. The Apple TV thing, not those streaming service, but the sort of Roku thing. They have that kind of stuff.
But this is center stage, they know that if they put a product out there like this — if they are gonna do spatial computing and get into this world — that it’s a different conversation. So it is riskier, in a way, if this fails, they start looking more like Samsung. Where they’re just churning stuff out, and then maybe the next time they do something like this that’s not taken quite as seriously. So I do think that they think, for whatever reason, that this has a better chance than not of succeeding to the point where they get to count it as a success. Or the executive leadership gets to counted as a success, given the numbers that they see. But yeah, you’re right. We’ve seen all these demos a million times before: Oh, it’s a T-Rex, wow. Oh, it’s a home theater in virtual reality. Wow. I mean, they made it look really nice and I’m sure it works better than the competitors, because it’s Apple. But I don’t know, I’m not seeing the transcendence, I’m not seeing it pushed through.
And then all the other things that we’re talking about it, all the negatives working against it. Where it’s just, as I wrote my column and you wrote in your piece, that it’s deserves to be ridiculed. Because it’s leading us in this direction of antisocial environments where the tech companies get to dominate more of our attention, and then charge us for more of it ultimately, or that’s the hope. I wrote in mine that it’s just — even in terms of a conception of a vision of what we want to do with computing — it’s just so solitary and depressing to me that I think those two conversations are part and parcel. But this home theater for your face vision, that that’s what they really highlighted. Do we want to go even deeper into the things about our phones that have been isolating? I don’t know, I don’t think so. So I think people might revolt against that, too.
PM: I feel like even the demos that they showed off when they were presenting the device at their event looked really odd. And it was kind of like: Is this really what we need? Is this something that I was really desiring and that I needed a solution for? Obviously, they showed the people who are doing the work on their headsets, in the same way that Google Glass was ridiculed out of public existence, it still had an enterprise use case after that. So I can maybe see some of that. But I think the idea that you’re gonna have all these workers strapping headsets onto their faces and doing their work, like computer workers and stuff like that, I think that seems a bit far fetched for me.
BM: As you mentioned in your piece, they’re obviously trying to make it seem like you got the goggles on, and then you can do work, but still engaged with your kids. But to me, that’s even more depressing. Like right now, we’re already expected to have one eye on our phones and to see an email when they’re coming in, and like: Oh, yeah, paying attention to the kids. But now we literally have our work overlaid on our faces. And we’re viewing our kids and our family through a layer of omnipresent work, through a platform that is dictated by a tech company. That seems even more dystopian to me.
PM: And then if you want to talk to that kid, or interact with the person who’s on the other side of your headset. Once you get the headset, you scan your face, and it does this false version of your face. So they see a fake version of your eyes that’s being detected based on all the cameras that are on the headset. It’s like, I don’t know, is this really what people want? Is this the vision of wearing a headset, but now you can actually relate to people. Just pick up on that, one of the other demos that they showed was a guy wearing the headset, he’s in his house, he’s filming his kids. Or they show that the same type of a guy is filming his daughter’s birthday party. Why are you wearing this headset at your daughter’s birthday party? Like what is wrong with you?
BM: Exactly! I mean, it really is just weird. Apple’s famous thing is like: We’re not going to do focus groups and learn what people want, we’re going to tell them what people want. But this also, again, seems another instance where Apple is trying to breach new territory. Even the tech reviewers, I think, that got to try this thing. That FaceTime where it makes the deepfake of yourself, and then that’s your avatar. I feel like even the most gung-ho tech reviewers are like: I don’t want to see uncanny valley versions of other people. I was talking to somebody on Twitter, I was like: What’s wrong with FaceTime for that. FaceTime gets this right.Why do you need to be any closer? Why do you have to see a weird 3D rendered version just to do FaceTime? In that case, put down the goggles and pick up your phone. That is, to me, a totally fabricated and a leap into a terrain that nobody asked to go into.
PM: Absolutely. For listeners who aren’t aware of what you’re talking about, basically, they showed off this demo, where if you’re wearing the headset, you can still FaceTime call with people. But obviously you’re not going to get a real picture of your face, so since you’ve scanned your face, when you got the headset, it’ll do a fake version of you. Because the cameras are watching your face, it’ll mimic your interactions and reactions and stuff. It’s really odd. I think it’s particularly odd. Obviously, we’ve been talking about what this device looks like and the idea of how it will be used, but to think that these people developed this headset, and didn’t think that these use cases they were showing off were very weird features. What is the kind of person that looks at thi, and says: Yeah, that’s a good idea. I really want to use this device in this way. I think it does show how disconnected from reality these people are.
BM: I do too. Or it’s just the desperation for finding something that sticks, like: Maybe this will resonate with people because we don’t know. Like you said, we don’t know. My critique of the whole spatial compuing universe, I feel, it continues to endure. People have shown what they want to do with these things — let’s play games. The problem is that there’s a small subset — relatively small. In any other epoch, it would be an unfathomably huge consumer segment where you have tens of millions of people who want to do this. For Silicon Valley, that’s not big enough. We can’t say: Okay, here’s a cool use for this. This makes some people nauseous. It makes some people feel turned off. They don’t want to be with a headset, but there’s this large and vibrant community that likes being in this space. Why don’t we serve them? Why don’t we make great games for them? Why don’t we make a digital community and tailor it to them?
It’s like: No, no, no. We have to make sure that this is for everybody. Everybody’s got to want to work in this. Everybody’s got to want to strap it on and communicate with all their friends in it. Everybody has to want to be entertained by this. We have to make this for everybody. I think you’re right, in that it’s how out of touch someone like Zuckerberg is. That it might seem really cool, because it’s been hitting all his pleasure centers since he was a teenager. He’s had this dream of making Neal Stephenson’s cyberpunk dystopia a reality, since he was 15 years old. But for most of us, most people, it’s like: No, thank you. Maybe I’ll even be inclined to take a sliver of it and play the games. But the whole insinuation that I just want to spend all my days in this environment is off-putting to most people. It’s become clear, that’s one thing that David says in his piece for Wired, that people just do continually like reject these.
Now, as Silicon Valley is more well-capitalized, and more powerful and insinuated into every layer of our existence, now it has the power, or believes it has the power to bludgeon us with this vision. It’s interesting that the Metaverse really seems to be one of those areas where it is at the limit of what it can foist on people because it’s not taking. My fear was that with Facebook, and it was really trying to push that shitty looking workforce horizons demo, that was its lead use case. My fear was that it would be just wealthy enough, powerful enough, that it could use its enterprise connections to try to bludgeon its way into various use cases. Then that would become a requirement. But fortunately, the demo was so shitty that it was rejected even by most managers who were like: No, I would love to surveil my workforce 24/7, and have the data beamed into corporate, about everything that they’re looking at, everything that they’re doing. Now, that’s what I want, but they’re not going to go for this. Sorry.
PM: Even this is a step too far [laughs].
BM: I can’t sell them on this! They might revolt.
PM: I think I read a story recently that even workers at Meta are not using the Metaverse.
BM: I think almost immediately, it was like six months in, they were like: Uhhhh. Their manager was like: Guys, we’re building this thing for other people. If we want other people to use it, we got to use it. And they’re like: No, no thanks.
PM: That’s not happening.
BM: Which again, does tie back to the dichotomy between Apple and Meta. Apple is smart enough, at least, to intuit who this might appeal to. I think they’re weird, deepfake FaceTime misfired, but nothing else was so over the edge as to make them look stupid. It might make them look out of touch, but it’s gonna dry in that sort of core Apple fanboy is going to still see things that resonate. And it did do a few smart things I think. With having the controllers, that does take games off the table, I’m sure that their calculation is that the Oculus and Meta, the Metaquest, already have such a headstart in that ecosystem, that that’s not something that they want to compete with. It is very Apple to limit and make simple.
People are saying that it does work — that you just look at something and then you can pinch, and if that feels satisfying enough, that could get a foothold in some senses. That’s having used every single one of these VR systems and AR systems that have come out, that is still a big catching point. It’s always: You got to figure out how these weird controllers you’ve got in your head, they’re all a little bit different, and it’s a combination of looking and then walking is awkward. So they took walking out too, so in favor of consumer usability. The pros are that it may have streamlined the use of a VR interface enough to maybe get more people on board. The cons, of course, being that it severely limits what you can actually do. It renders you a much more passive consumer of computing, like you’re just looking at videos, or you’re working on your screens.
The other funny thing, all of these companies keep trying to get you to do is try to convince you that browsing the internet will be better with a headset on. It’s like: No, I don’t need this. I don’t need to be sort of immersed in a Google search or immersed in reading a blog. It’s fine! It’s fine to do it sitting on a computer. So, I do think that, and we can probably get more into that, but Apple’s vision of this is maybe more functional, maybe more satisfying and intuitive, but also ultimately more solitary. And even though the core products for the Metaverse, as imagined by Zuckerberg and compyany, were so shitty. I think in some ways, Apple’s vision is even more depressing. At least Zuckerberg was like: You can be dueling and you’ll go into this room and it’ll be a rave, or there’ll be stand up comedy over here. At least it was an effort to imagine a parasocial sort of environment.
PM: You’re engaging with people was the idea. Even though they were avatars and stuff like that, not real people. But the idea was there were still some people you’re interacting with, in some way.
BM: And you’re doing something new somehow that you couldn’t. I could never duel with this master duelist, now I can. At least there was some appeal. I watch Apple’s demos, and it’s like: You can shut out the world on an airplane and watch a movie on your face, and no one can bother you. You can work in your kitchen while your kids are playing and still barely keep an eye on them, but you’re mostly immersed in work. Again, so much of it is about consumptive entertainment and having it beamed onto your face and being by yourself with more computing power and higher resolution just surrounding you.
Again, its a continuation of Apple’s style — where you wall users in and you use the apps they approve of, you use all the services and products that are in their ecosystem. It’s just that that maybe appealing to a certain kind of user. But it is interesting to me. I think, my guess would be, it’s probably partially constraining. Apple’s never really done much social stuff at all. Facebook’s a social company, so they maybe wanted to try to keep that in the mix. But by not being able to walk, by not being able to have controllers beyond pinching, you are limited to what you can do. So beyond the weird, uncanny valley FaceTime, there was really no gesture towards, or play at a shared social environment in this new immersive world — it’s you alone.
PM: It’s just that because you have the cameras on the other side, people can occasionally step in, and you can still kind of see them there. I think that one of the things that really stood out to me as you talk about the isolation of this experience, and there are some other things I want to come back to. But what really stood out to me is how it seems like an extension of something that the tech industry has really been pushing at us for a while. I feel like a lot of these companies have profited from the fact, or would like to see us, be more isolated, because it does ensure that we interface more with their services, if that’s the way that it acts.
In the piece that I wrote, I wrote about how there has been this movement, for a number of years, toward getting us to kind of stay at home or stay at work, and get everything delivered because that works for the business models of e-commerce companies in these delivery apps and things like that. But then I also think that during the pandemic, we saw how beneficial to these companies it was for all of us to be using our screens more and more. To be consuming more content, etc. Their revenue and their profits all soared when we were in lockdown. And I think it showed you how having this isolating experience, how disconnecting you from other people is actually really beneficial to them, or at least sticking the tech in between your interactions
I think you see that — as you were talking about — in the motivation with the Metaverse. Of course, you can play games and you can interact with people through the technology, but also you can work through the technology because work from home was really big and is still quite big. But now you can be surveilled much more easily through that. I feel like when you extend that to the Apple universe It’s like: Okay, now we’re even further closing this down, we’re isolating you with this device. This device ensures that you can’t really share an experience with other people. You’re not sitting on a couch and watching a movie with people, or sitting in a cinema with this bigger experience that your experiencing with people. It’s like, how can you shut everything out and just be in your own little bubble as much as possible? How can we ensure that the screen is always there, that you’re always consuming it? And this is what really stood out to me.
BM: I thought that was a really, really good point about how during the pandemic, we went from the theater, to the home theater, and to the theatre on your face. In a lot of ways I think you’re right. I think with the pandemic, they saw those conditions and how favorable they were to themselves for sure. Again, I think that we’re also seeing sort of some of the limits of that, why people don’t want to be inside all the time, and how punishing that can feel in some cases. With the exception of work people are enjoying that freedom of working. So I would be surprised if we didn’t see more efforts in this space to try to evolve Zoom, or to capture more data or sort of do that. There are limits to Zoom, of course, although Apple doesn’t really tend to do a lot of workplace productivity stuff. I think their bet is usually going to be the hardware.
It’s still hard for me to see anything approaching iPhone, or even iPad numbers from this thing. But that seems to be how they’ve gone. And it also does sort of illuminate this real breakdown in what Apple is. I think it was another tech guy who pointed this out on Twitter — maybe it was Benedict Evans, or something — who was like: Apple has spent the last ten years trying to promote itself as a privacy company. Now it’s trying to sell you on this headset that has a dozen always on cameras that are just collecting all this data. And if this does see any modicum of success, it’s hard to see, even with Apple whose whole pitch to you right now is stay in our ecosystem. We’re building all yours hardware and all your software. We get all the say over how all that works, but the trade off is you get to feel safe.
Security folks, give them credit for that. A lot of the data that they say stays local to your device on the Secure Enclave chip, does stay local to your device. Apple has been able to deal some pretty punishing blows to Facebook in hampering its data collection. So it has been interesting, at least right now. But no one’s saying like: Oh, Apple just thinks the future of computing should be more private and the user should have more security and free. It’s like no, right now, that’s a huge market advantage for Apple to be able to do that. Because it has this consumer base that it can sort of make that pitch to and still make tons of money off the iPhone. In a brand new environment where it has a new, let’s say this thing does start to take off in a way that the Meta headset didn’t. It already has partnerships with Microsoft, which has no such qualms doing surveillance heavy productivity software. I made some joke about it on Twitter about how it has Excel; you can immerse yourself in in Excel.
PM: Spreadsheets everywhere [laughs].
BM: Yeah! It’s like a prison, you’re just in a prison of rectangles. But I got a surprising number of earnest replies like this, but unironically. They do want to be in in there and be immersed in just hyper-efficient Excel land. But I do think it’s hard to see if they do start taking off, them not finding ways to change their approach on this supremely surveillance-capable device. And potentially you’re seeing a lot too. You’re getting a lot of data inputs too, so this can be used. That was one of the big problems with with Google Glass that people hated is that people didn’t know whether you were being recorded all the time, or whether somebody with Google Glass on it was taking snapshots of you, for further use for whatever reason. And that really bothered people. I don’t know if it’ll bother people as much now that we’ve had ten years of people putting phones in other people’s faces, and it’s always a possibility that you might be photographed or but it’s still a pretty, pretty, pretty gross possibility.
PM: I feel like there’s even a bit of a backlash that’s been happening to that. People always being filmed in public. I feel like that’s starting to shift especially as TikTok pushes a new wave of it. But I did want to go back to something you were saying earlier when you were talking about the development of this. And how Apple has obviously been looking for a big new product that it can pursue, and the Vision Pro is what they have landed on as what they see as the future of computing. It’s not just kind of a HomePod thing that they put out there, and we’ll see how it’ll do. But they’re actually staking a lot on this and making it seem like: This is something that we believe is the next big thing, it’s gonna make a really big difference, the way that people use computing.
They’re really hoping that that is going to be true, because they do need a new device. And I wonder how you feel about the development of this, because we hear that the development has been quite different under Tim Cook, as under when Steve Jobs used to shepherd these projects along and his kind of involvement in it. But also, if it feels like Tim Cook needed to put something out there to prove that he can still have some kind of hardware vision. That Apple can still innovate under his leadership, and not just create a ton of new skews that sell a bunch and that makes shareholders really happy. But then what happens if this doesn’t take off in a way that an iPhone or an iPad or a Watch has, if they do kind of really get this wrong?
BM: It’s interesting. Apple is so much different than it was 15, 16 years ago. It is much bigger, it’s got a lot more bureaucracy. Apple was reasonably big since the 80s and 90s, but it really suffered a string of losses through the 90s. Then it kind of was a non-player for a little while. Then the iPod, of all things, rejuvenated it. It had, around the time that they started thinking about doing a phone when the iPod was really the big hit at the company, there was some elasticity in the management structure of Apple where they could just kind of say: Okay, we’re doing iPhone now. It was from the executive level, they pulled everybody into this one project. Not everybody, but a huge chunk of the company to the point where people who weren’t on it were like: What the hell’s going on, and why am I not on this thing? But they were able to make this the thing that Apple was doing.
That hasn’t been the case for a long time — there’s all kinds of different projects. Apple is so secret, it’s hard. You have to rely on things that leak out, and Mark Gurman’s reporting it at Bloomberg. But you get the sense that this was as big as anything of any of those projects. Maybe the car was probably the other contender. It’s Project Titan, which has been put on hold or turned into software. It was going to be a whole car for a while, it seems and then who knows what it is now. But this was the other area of interest that you kept hearing about. But given the structure, what it was, it’s a lot more unruly, a lot more sort of buy in, a lot more — you have to assume — the thing that Apple used to disdain, which was designing by committee.
I still think that they were able to get a couple interesting things right in the Apple tradition in that, like what I mentioned earlier, the gesture and the simplicity, where they’re like encouraging Apple users who are used to certain things like pinch and zoom and have already some level familiarity with the lexicon that you need to use to operate it. So I think they’re trying to make it a more obvious product. But in a lot of ways, it does feel like the things that worked about the iPhone, when you would pick it up for the first time. That’s the thing. I guess, the jury will have to be out a little bit, neither of us have used it. I don’t want to completely discount it, but I remember the first time I picked up an iPhone. I was kind of a skeptic, just a passive one. At the time, I wasn’t really even interested in technology much. But my friend had an iPhone and you could like, put your fingers on it and expand a map and like: Oh, that’s where we’re going to oh, okay. You kind of got it.
It felt very intuitive, why you would want to have this thing. Not both ease of use, which is one thing that the Vision Pro may nail. It may nail the ease of use, but it also has to connect into that second level. Where it’s like: Oh, this is easy to use. And I see how this is useful. Like: Oh, I don’t know this part of the city that I’m going to be going to. Here’s where the restaurant is. And boop, I can use my fingers to expand it and see where. I can see how that could be useful to me. I can see why I want to have that in my pocket all the time. Plus, it feels nice to just be booping and touch around on it. So it had those two things working in conjunction that made it unusually powerful. We can’t say for sure that we’re not going to put this on and all of a sudden go: Wow, yeah, I can see how this makes logging onto my email much better, or whatever. Immersed in whatever, I mean, it is the part. Again, recycling all these old demos that we’ve seen a million times before. Like, that’s what Magic Leap showed me when I went to the Magic Leap demo six years. however many years ago, seven years ago. It was: Oh, yeah, there’s some productivity stuff where it might help you to move design parts around.
It’s like: Okay, that could work for designers, maybe, some of them in. Then it was the, ooh-ahh, kind of like there’s an alien walking on my shoulder, or it looks like it. That’s amusing for a minute or two, but it has no practical purpose beyond that. Then it’s like: you can sit in a theater and watch an immersive sort of entertainment thing. Again, I can’t really fathom, I’m going to reserve complete utter judgment until I try the thing on, but it sure seems to me that it’s still lacking that second part of the equation. Even if they nailed how easy it is to get around. Nilay Patel is usually a good bellwether. He can be critical of the technology, but he also loves the technology, obviously. And his review was like: This is the best VR demo that I’ve ever seen, it’s still a headset demo. I don’t see what else is going to elevate it beyond that. I think that it’s still missing that key part of the equation.
PM: I think even when you see the people who are quite positive on a lot of these things, oftentimes, and they’re still kind of asking questions about it, that tells you something. One of the interesting things, and one of the things that people picked up on about this, is that usually when Apple introduces a new product, you see the executives kind of playing with it, using it, showing you why you would want to use it. And of course, with this headset it has never been on Tim Cook’s face in public. You haven’t seen him use it or any of these other key people who show these things off at the keynotes. That seemed to be quite notable, I guess I would say. Then the other thing is a lot of people have been saying that Steve Jobs would have never released a product like this. What do you make of that?
BM: What I would say to that is Steve Jobs would have made sure it looked good on his face. It wouldn’t have come out if it didn’t look good on his face, because he did demo everything. And that’s absolutely why Tim Cook didn’t wear it, he would have looked foolish. That’s why the demo was all hot people. Bearded dad and it definitely skewed younger to try to give you the impression that this is something that can look stylish on you. But, again, it was in very contained examples.It’s hard to say the playing what would Steve Jobs have approved of game? It’s one of the most futile games you can play in the tech commentary. Because he was ultimately very fickle, and very motivated by wherever his opinion was leading him on a given day. I think he probably would have liked the fact that they made the technology work, and it felt fluid, and he maybe could have been sold on something like that. I don’t know.
He’s usually not persuaded until there’s a headwind blowing strong enough, he wasn’t going to do the iPhone, until it was a necessity from the business use case because other phone-makers and early smartphone entrants, were starting to put MP3s threes on phones. So that was going to start to eat the iPods lunch and that was ultimately what forced him. And right now there isn’t really any forcing mechanism like that. So Apple is the richest company in the world. It doesn’t need to go out on a limb like this. I do wonder about sort of like the executive machinations, if there’s some grumblings. Tim Cook’s job is probably pretty secure, if only because it’s not clear who would supplant him anymore. He’s just the legacy guy and until he wants to bail, I can’t imagine him being ousted. That said, he probably does want his legacy to be beyond the guy who figured out supply-chains for Steve Jobs, which is what it is right now.
PM: And an increased profit margins; it made the shareholders really happy, which is basically what he has done.
BM: Maybe that’s all he wanted to do. He’s certainly not Mark Zuckerberg, who’s like: Oh, I made this thing; it’s everywhere. I conquered the world with it, but also people kind of hate me. How about this cyberpunk thing that I have kind of fantasized about for 30 years? He’s certainly not that, I don’t think, but it’s hard to say.
PM: I feel like one of the stories that really stood out to me when you read about the development of the product was that the executives and Cook himself, seemed like really wanted more of like a smart glasses, sort of a thing. Something that was going to be much slimmer and much easier to wear.
BM: That’s what you always read about, right?
PM: And it eventually reached the point where they were like: We have to put something out. And so we’re going to do this headset thing that’s super expensive. And just hope that the tech keeps working into the future, and we can do something that is more approachable and whatnot. But I think that still remains an open question, really.
BM: Absolutely, still remains a huge open question. It was an AR kit, they wanted it to be augmented reality more than that. It’s funny that it did wound up being virtual reality. They’ve had it as something developers could play with, sort of the in your iPhone, through the camera processor, there are some apps and things that make use of that. That’s been out for years and years. For a while the smart money was that it was going to be something closer to glasses, and my guess is that is probably what they wanted. But it couldn’t really do anything impressive that way, as my sense. Is that it just wasn’t good enough to be something people would want to use or didn’t feel Apple enough, didn’t feel like finished enough. So they had to go the super expensive goggles route, which we’ll see.
PM: I’m skeptical that like the smart glasses ever really arrived. Maybe if we’re talking about in 50 years or something like that, then they’ll be able to do something like that. But I don’t see it as like a product that is realistically going to be available to people and going to be doing this AR stuff that all these companies want, or ostensibly want us to be doing. Where there’s kind of a digital overlay on the real world and we’re just wearing like a regular pair of glasses. Like I just don’t see that as being something that is really attainable. I think it’s a sci-fi vision. And even if they did achieve it, would we really want that? I don’t think so.
BM: That’s exactly the question we’re grappling with right now. Because they have released some of these —there was the Facebook Ray Bans, or it was maybe even before they renamed it Meta, or just around then maybe. But I think you could buy those glasses. It’d be fun to try all the versions, you can still get a hold of Google Glasses. There are these shots at it. There something I was looking at BestBuy the other day and I hadnever even heard of this. But I guess for that person who really wants some words overlaid on their eyeballs while they’re looking at the world or some sort of half finished digital version of Snow Crash. There’s people that I guess there’s still staning that cause, but not many. And I agree with you. I think more than anything, this moment, is really one of determining whether or not we want a given future.
I think it is possible to reject this mode of computing altogether, or to determine how we want it to be used. Again, as I mentioned earlier, there are some cool use cases for that. It could be great for gaming, or for some things, for some niche professions that want to use it. Build it for them, or just don’t try to force us all into this new environment that so many people have clearly articulated they don’t want to be in. So we can negotiate this terrain and I think that it’s smart to point that out and we can reject it, we can! This is a case where we can be Luddites about it and say: We recognize that this is going to be used to degrade so many of the conditions of our lives that we find pleasurable, let’s say no to this one, or to this part of it.
Even if the Facebook’s workforce Horizon Worlds really worked all that well, would there be buy in? I mean, again, you could see the managers trying to force it into use in certain cases. But I think we’re at a unique point where after years of percolating criticism and years of Silicon Valley not knowing exactly what to do with itself, and having agreed to pursue this spatial computing vision, we’re really seeing an opportunity where we get to negotiate what the future looks like. The point that you raise in your piece, in your newsletter, that we should ridicule this thing is salient because I think we can.
PM: Obviously, I completely agree with you on that. As we’ve been talking about, I see this as a really isolating device. It goes on your face, it isolates you from the world around you. That is the goal of it, even if Apple shows that people can walk into the frame and all this kind of stuff. It’s really designed to be isolating, to separate you from the world around you. I think that that is just a really negative vision for how these things have been developing. I believe, as you said in your piece, we already have our phones all the time. We’re already using them all the time do we really want now our phones like strapped onto our faces? I don’t think we want to be that immersed in our phones, as you described in your piece in the LA Times.
So I think that it’s so important that we recognize that we do have this power to ridicule these technologies and to reject these futures instead of letting the Metas and the Apples of the world, kind of shape the future of computing and chart that future. And say that this is what’s going to work best for us as companies, that’s best for our bottom lines. So this is what we are sticking you with and you just need to adopt it because we are these massive companies that know best for you. I think that we need to reject that outight, which is why we need to learn from the example of Google Glass and ridicule these things and even ridicule the people who use them, yes. Because that is ultimately what worked. Not just with Google Glass, we saw with Web3 in the crypto stuff because we had the criticism, because we said this is ridiculous.
I think that’s one of the reasons that contributed to the downfall of this industry and people not adopting it widely. The Metaverse as well, we laughed and joked at Mark Zuckerberg wearing his headset and showing off his goofy designs in the Metaverse. I think that also contributed to people not buying into it and even giving it a shot. I think that that is worthy of doing with the Apple headset as well, recognizing that I still think there will be some use cases for these. As you’re talking about, I think there might be enterprise use cases for a headset like this. I think maybe there will be some gaming use cases. I don’t think that is inherently a bad thing. It’s not to say that people shouldn’t use VR headsets, if it makes sense in some certain contexts.
But the notion that this is something that should become a mass product, that instead of serving maybe five to 10 million people, it needs to be adopted by 500 million to a billion people. I think that is really the difference here. And maybe a question for you to start to end this off is, if that were to happen, if we were to say: Okay, there are some use cases for this product. Some niche enterprise use cases, maybe some developers are using it, maybe some gamers are using it. But it’s not this mass product that everyone is using because we’re just fine with our computers and our phones, and we don’t need to strap a headset onto our faces. Is this something that Apple would continue supporting? If it’s not something that is adopted by the masses, but it’s just adopted in a niche sense? Because I would see that as very unlikely.
BM: It’s a really hard question to answer because to this point, no, they don’t really support especially because this would be such an intensive product to maintain. You’re going to have to have developers working around the clock, because as third party developers come up with new stuff, and the technology advances. If the Metaverse stuff keeps coming out of Facebook, then there’s going to be some urge to compete. So they’re going to have to fund a pretty large team just to keep supporting this stuff. And to keep it from falling behind, from failing, from breaking, or from being embarrassing. So it’s going to be a pretty expensive undertaking. So that’s, again, one of those things where they don’t really have to do too much with the HomePod. If it fails they just have to make sure it’s updated and compatible. They don’t have to make any big announcements how they’re discontinuing service and disappointing a lot of people or admitting defeat.
PM: They’re just taking the Siri off of your phone and sticking it in the HomePod. There’s not much more that needs to be done other than that.
BM: It is something that is a big question mark. And it’s part of the reason this is such a bigger bet. I would say, it would be fine, I guess, for people who want to sort of compute this way, who want to sort of be in these environments. There are points where it would need to be resisted more. I mean, if this thing does get adopted into work situations, then I think, no good could come of that. Again, it’s unlikely to me that that will happen because Apple is typically not an enterprise companyT hey do some, they have sort of worked on making the products friendly to designers on to some level, and but it’s not their bread and butter. So I wouldn’t say it’s a pressing concern. But again, I think there’s a number of tiers here. If it doesn’t pass the first tier, where if it just kind of flops and nobody buys it, and it’s pretty clear, then they just have to close up shop. That’s fine.
If they get to the second tier where some people are using it for some things, and then, maybe, they dedicate a team of developers to keep it living along. If it’s not a huge hit, and then they get to dictate the terms and conditions of how people are using it within its walled-garden. Again, if it’s a huge, even iPad or a Watch-scale hit, then they might have some vested interest in not making it invasive and not making it a privacy problem and figuring out ways to do that. But if it comes down, just below that maybe, where it’s like: We got to do something with this. Apple’s already made some noise into venturing into new territory, that enterprise territory some defense contracting stuff.
I could see this being something that they become willing to pivot on. And that would be something that would be worth preparing for and worth resisting and worth opposing. If you find the technology onerous enough to do so. I think people are well within their rights to ridicule these things. I don’t know that we’re there yet. I also think it’s too ridiculous. People remember the Google Glass thing. I think it is going to be a home thing. I think people will use them just as VR goggles because it’s too silly looking anywhere outside of Silicon Valley to just go for a stroll with this thing on. I don’t know, I could eat those words, but that’s my sense is that it’s pretty cumbersome. You don’t need to be outside with these things, and I don’t imagine many will be.
PM: I think it’s far less likely that it’ll be used out in the world. And I think it’s more likely to be used in the home, but if it starts to work its way into the workplace as more of a common thing, then that’s a place to start saying: You look ridiculous. Why are you putting that on your face? I think most of all, like, as you said, it looks stupid. I think it looks ridiculous. But I think that the framing of it as this thing that these weird tech people are putting on their faces and recording their kids with, and stuff like that. That is possibly a way to show that this is a product made by people who are super disconnected from real life and how people actually live. And think it’s okay to be social in this way, by wearing this massive headset strapped to your face. That starts to show that this is not something that any reasonable person would buy and us, and that’s a good way to think about it.
BM: I think that’s more or less right. It does really sort of communicate, to me anyways, a lack of creativity that among this set, that this is how many go rounds now? We’re seeing another headset from Apple after seeing one from Microsoft and from Magicleap, and from Facebook. Sure, it’s a little bit different, but it’s more of the same for 98% of its use cases and its DNA. It’s aiming to accomplish the same things and that’s to make a very narrow set of people — who happen to be much wealthier than most — happy.
PM: Absolutely. Brian, it’s always fantastic to have you on the show. Obviously it’s been a bit too long but it’s great to have you back digging into Apple, a topic that you’re very familiar with. Having written a book all about the iPhone and listeners can be ready, can be waiting, can be anticipating the return of Brian Merchant later this year when we’ll be talking about your fantastic book about the Luddites. If you haven’t gotten them pre-ordered yet you should really go and do it, “Blood in the Machine: The Origins of the Rebellion Against Big Tech.” Brian, always happy to chat thanks so much.
BM: Thank you Paris, always a pleasure.