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Brace up for Apple CEO’s riskiest move

People like to point out that Steve Jobs, remarkable as he was, didn’t actually invent the smartphone. Nor did he invent the home computer, the MP3 player or the tablet. What he did, of course, was create a breakthrough version of all of those technologies that people actually wanted to use — sending Apple Inc. on its way to becoming the $2.7 trillion juggernaut it is today.

One criticism of his successor as chief executive officer, meanwhile, is that he is yet to come up with a bold new idea of his own. Tim Cook, the steady-handed supply chain expert, has instead built on top those existing successes. Even the Apple Watch, which came out almost four years after Jobs’ death, had the late visionary’s input in the development, if not the execution.

Finally, we may be about to see a Cook innovation. And boy, what a risk it is: a punt on a new technology quite unlike any in Apple’s past.

In June, at its Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), Apple is expected to share long-awaited details of its mixed reality headset; a device that offers both augmented reality and virtual reality. The first overlays imagery onto your real surroundings; the second immerses you in a fully digital environment.

At the onset, Apple’s headset will not be a mass-market product. At $3,000, according to reporting by Bloomberg News, it will be almost seven times as expensive as Meta Platforms Inc.’s Quest 2, the biggest selling VR headset — 18 million units to date, according to CCS Insight.

But what will start small has the potential to grow. The Wall Street Journal reported that Apple is lining up Foxconn to assemble a second-generation, cheaper version of the headset, making mixed reality a substantial part of Apple’s product roadmap for the foreseeable future.

Quite how much we’ll see of the headset at WWDC is not clear. Shipments in 2023 are expected to be a tiny fraction of Apple’s other products. But we can expect a product pitch outlining why we might one day want one. This will be a challenge: Other Apple products had a proven utility before hitting the market. Sony Group Corp.’s Walkman came along before the iPod; the Nokia 3210 before the iPhone. We knew what these products were for and were thrilled with the enhancements, lining up around the block to get them. There is no such enthusiasm for a mixed reality headset.

In fact, the opposite may be true. There is a strong feeling among much of the tech-buying public that this is a technology that is neither needed nor wanted. The metaverse — the virtual world these headsets can take us to — has already been declared dead, jeered into irrelevance, less than two years after Mark Zuckerberg renamed his company to underline his belief in it being the next big computing platform. Searches for “metaverse” on Google have slumped, and metaverse communities are barren, largely abandoned by the curious early adopters.

But that may have been a Meta problem, not a metaverse problem. Zuckerberg isn’t exactly a great ambassador for selling the “cool” in tech. The question is whether Cook can channel Jobs’ skill for making us believe. “Are you getting it?” he’d say, and we did.

That’s not something Cook has in his repertoire, but he can at least take lessons from the launch of the Apple Watch. Its debut in 2015, included a $10,000 18-karat gold version, glimpsed on the wrist of Beyonce, that sought to position it as both a tech product and a high-end fashion accessory. Apple would soon come to understand that the killer app for the Watch was health and fitness — and it now dominates the sector. Again, Apple didn’t invent the smartwatch. They just made one worth having.

A similar focus on health and wellness would be smart this time around. Virtual reality, I believe, is a game-changer for fitness — studies have shown that those exercising in a virtual world were working out for longer than they’d imagined. Time flies when you’re punching Rocky Balboa in the face. If Cook can position the headset as a lifestyle choice — more Peloton than PlayStation — he could have a hit.

“History says that Apple has the potential to reach new audiences,” said JP Gownder, a Forrester analyst, “to communicate about what the value of things are, in ways that other vendors may not have done in the past.”

But it’s a big risk. In a recent report, Gownder looked at poor adoption of mixed reality in the workplace, declaring 2023 a “metaverse winter,” when discussion and adoption of the technology would cool. Less than 5% of people surveyed said they were interested in using mixed reality at work.

And the fact remains that at a moment in time when most of us are working out how to use less tech and connect with the real world, mixed reality feels like further disconnection. There will be some people who will steer clear of Apple’s headset, not because they don’t think they’ll like it, but because they’re worried they will.

So, on the face of it, Cook has backed what many of his peers consider to be the wrong horse. Microsoft, which has scaled back development on its augmented reality headset Hololens, is instead now focusing on artificial intelligence — the technology people just can’t stop talking about. Apple doesn’t seem as interested.

You’d have to go back to the 1990s if you wanted to find the last time Microsoft seemed the more exciting company of the two. But here we are. What would Jobs make of that, I wonder? Something tells me he’d be relishing the chance to go against the grain and prove the doubters wrong. Bloomberg

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