Last week, Apple opened pre-orders for the Vision Pro, a $3500 “spatial computer” that is its first real “new” thing since the Apple Watch, and arguably its most notable release since the iPad or iPhone. Ming-Chi Kuo, one of the few truly reliable Apple analysts, estimates that the Vision Pro sold around 200,000 units, booking Apple around $700 million in sales of a device that even Tim Cook failed to explain beyond how it “marked a new era for computing.”
In practice, the Vision Pro appears to be a helmet that projects a desktop onto the world in front of you, controlled by selecting things with your eyes and gestures, (theoretically) immersing you in a focused and indeterminately large computing environment, like somebody installed iOS on the computer from Minority Report but required you to use a headset. In Apple’s “VisionOS,” you’ll be able to do everything you already do on a Mac or an iPhone (watch a movie, write an email, and so on) but in an “immersive 3D environment” with a two-hour battery life and $3500 price tag. As Michael Gartenberg of Business Insider wrote last June, “[Apple doesn’t] offer anything the world doesn’t already have.”
Hands-on demos with reporters have been remarkably critical and cautious with their language. The Verge’s Nilay Patel spent 6,000 words and significant art resources to review the original Apple Watch back in 2015, referring to it as “one of the most ambitious products [they had] ever seen.” In reviewing the Vision Pro nine years later, Patel calls the Vision Pro “an astounding product” with “an incredible display and passthrough engineering,” only to immediately suggest that Apple’s successful execution of passthrough technology (meaning that you can see the world through the headset as you use it) and hand based gestures “may have inadvertently revealed that some of these core ideas are actually dead ends” — as even Apple couldn’t even make gesture-based and eye-tracking controlled computing perfect. He suggests that the Vision Pro may be a glorified developer kit and is all that Apple can actually ship right now “to get everyone thinking about these ideas.” Yet in his own words, it was magic - until it was not.
Geoffrey Fowler of the Washington Post — who reviewed the original Apple Watch in 2015 at the Wall Street Journal and said that he could imagine “so much more” for the watch based on its early apps — leveled with his readers that every company, including Apple, had failed to answer what exactly VR or AR was good for, and on the Vision Pro release day, called it a “privacy mess waiting to happen.” The New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo (who left the paper in 2023) referred to the original Apple Watch as “bliss… after a steep learning curve.” Brian X. Chen, the Times’ leading tech reviewer, was comparatively less enthused when he previewed the Vision Pro, remarking that “there wasn’t much new to see here.”
The Apple Watch was announced seven months before it shipped, hailed as a “must-have fashion accessory” by the LA Times worn by celebrities throughout the world, and multiple tech publications hyped the $10,000 Apple Watch “Edition.”
It’s important to note that even back in 2015, the Apple Watch was kind of a dog. It was slow, heavy, had very few apps, a confusing user interface and a battery life as short as 2.5 hours. It protruded from your wrist like a metallic boil, and took several years to become anything adjacent to “fashionable.” Every review, on some level, attempted to explain why Apple had created the device — as an intermediary between your phone’s notifications, a way to track your heart rate, and so on — a degree of reasonableness that included saying things like “Apple can only do so much” to cover for a device that would quickly die if you used too many of its functions in a day.
Apple has, based on most of the reports I’ve read, delivered the kind of “immersive computing experience” that many of the metaverse con artists promised, and done so in a way that, while burdensomely expensive and limited in its battery life, actually exists. Yet where Mark Zuckerberg received gushing fan fiction about the possibilities of the metaverse (and Meta itself), Tim Cook has found himself having (to quote Tripp Mickle of the New York Times) to “take a humble approach” to launching the next computer from arguably the most notable computer company in the world. While there are some in the press who are kind of excited, there is a poignant skepticism that simply wasn't there when the Apple Watch launched.
At this point, I want to be clear that none of this is a criticism of any reporter at the time. Back then there was hope, a belief that these companies were building the future and selling it to us in a seemingly-honest transaction, and a level of trust that tech companies were so profitable because they were making cool stuff. Tech had banked a great deal of goodwill, adding depth and connectivity to our lives, making information easier to find and take action upon, delivering anything we wanted faster than we’d ever got it before. It was exciting to imagine what Apple, Amazon, or Facebook might do next.
Sadly, we found out. Big tech — with venture capital by its side — spent a decade mistreating, manipulating and misleading governments, consumers and the media in the pursuit of greed, taking advantage of society’s optimism in the name of eternal growth.
In June 2013, the Guardian and Washington Post revealed that the US government’s “PRISM” program had the ability to directly collect user data from companies like Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo, Facebook, Dropbox and Microsoft, with The Verge reporting that one in seven NSA reports at the time contained data from the program. Though the US government claimed that PRISM was only used to monitor foreigners located abroad, the ACLU argued that PRISM could absolutely be used to target Americans under the 2008 amendments to Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Service Act, which the government has admitted was partially used to spy on Americans’ international communications without a warrant.
Though the story was a little convoluted for the average person to digest, it still made everybody intimately aware of how much of their lives flowed through several massive internet companies. At this point, the consumer cloud computing boom was in full swing, with millions of people trusting their personal data to Microsoft’s OneDrive, Dropbox, Box.com and Google Drive, 232 million people using Twitter (which went public at the end of 2013), and 1.23 billion people using Facebook.
In 2014, we saw a mass consolidation in the tech industry, one that fundamentally changed the world in a way that I’m not sure many have considered. Google bought Nest for $3.2 billion and AI company DeepMind for $500 million, Microsoft bought Minecraft developer Mojang for $2.5 billion, Facebook bought VR headset company Oculus Rift for $2 billion and globally-adored chat app WhatsApp for $19 billion, Samsung bought Smart Home company SmartThings for $200 million, and Amazon bought Twitch for $970 million. And one of the more notable acquisitions that people forget is Qualcomm buying CSR, a company that (through a series of mergers) owned the aptX audio codec family that underpins most high resolution bluetooth audio, among numerous other Bluetooth and GPS patents that are now owned by one single $171 billion corporation.
The next few years truly began to test the public’s patience. Tesla launched the first version of its “autopilot” software in late 2015, offering the ability to let the car steer for you and keep you in your lane, leading to two fatalities by June 2016. Nevertheless, Musk began his bullshit parade, promising that “every new Tesla could drive itself by the end of 2017,” a promise he has yet to keep. Nevertheless, this began the theoretical autonomous driving wars, with GM and Lyft promising to roll out autonomous Chevy Bolts “within a year” in May 2016 (shortly before acquiring autonomous car company cruise for $1 billion and investing $500 million in Lyft a few months prior), then saying in February 2017 they’d be doing so in 2018, only for a Detroit News story in mid-2018 to say that GM was, in fact, distancing themselves from Lyft.
Apple made the decision to kill the headphone jack with the launch of the iPhone 7 in 2016, conveniently launching their own wireless “AirPods” headphones to go with it, right around the time that Samsung Galaxy Note 7s began to catch fire due to faulty batteries. Sony PlayStation launched the imminently forgettable and heavily-tethered PlayStation VR in October 2016, the first true “consumer” VR product (with HTC’s Vive and Oculus’ Rift requiring meaty gaming PCs to function) and… very little happened, as VR required — and still requires — a great deal of money and space for an experience that is “kind of cool.”
Yet the biggest problems came from the world of social networking, starting in early 2015, when Facebook convinced publishers to “pivot to video,” claiming that Facebook had seen more than 1 billion video views a day (a lot for the time) since 2014, following it up with a mid-2016 statement that within five years, Facebook would mostly be video. This led to multiple publishers entirely reorganizing newsrooms to cater to this theoretical video boom, largely driven by remarkably high view times of their videos. Except it was all bullshit, with Facebook finding a “discrepancy” that meant that it was only factoring in video views of more than three seconds for two years, artificially inflating the average time users spent watching videos by as much as 80%.
Two years later, it would come out in discovery that Facebook knew about the problem for more than a year before Zuckerberg’s "five years” speech. The consequences of Zuckerberg’s outright lies were that almost every media entity rushed to cater to Facebook’s imaginary video fanatics, costing hundreds of reporters their jobs and irrevocably damaging publications like Buzzfeed News, Fox Sports and Mic.
Somehow, that wasn’t the worst of what Facebook did in those years, with an investigation in 2018 revealing that a data analytics company Cambridge Analytica (which worked with the Donald Trump and Brexit campaigns) had scraped the data of 87 million Facebook profiles of US voters to build what the Guardian called “a powerful software program to predict and influence choices at the ballot box” since early 2014. This system allowed them to precisely profile and target individual voters, something Facebook had been aware of since late 2015. This led to Zuckerberg testifying before congress and a $5 billion FTC fine, which is little solace as these profiles were unquestionably used to influence the 2016 election.
These years also timed painfully with a dramatic slowdown in consumer tech innovation. Silicon Valley had made a great deal of promises in the 2010’s — autonomous taxis, flying cars, robots that would make our lives easier, augmented and virtual reality headsets that would change how we’d see the world, and futuristic healthcare startups would change our lives. Yet hype continually outpaced delivery. Home robotics never took off, autonomous taxis are years from being able to safely roam our roads, Uber dumped its flying car business, Magic Leap’s famous AR demo was falsified, and supposed revolutionary blood testing company Theranos was a $9 billion fraud that tricked large swaths of the media. Tech’s biggest supposed “innovation” was 2017’s bitcoin boom, one which was revealed to be driven entirely by market manipulation.
To be fair on the tech industry, consumer electronics and cloud computing have, by and large, improved to the point that the average person has access to a remarkable amount of services and streaming media sources compared to, say, 2011. Yet even then, streaming media continues to work against both customers (who don’t actually own anything) and artists (who barely get paid). Consumers no longer see the tech industry as exciting or innovative, but as a devil’s deal where even the things they own aren’t really theirs.
It’s hard to sell somebody on a new smartphone or laptop when so much of our computing is now done with cloud-based apps and streaming media. The last few iPhones — beyond the addition of FaceID, and perhaps the satellite-based SOS feature first introduced in the iPhone 14 — have mostly focused on better cameras and faster processors, with the occasional bump in screen quality or weight. While customers recognize their phones getting slower over time, it feels more a result of bloated operating systems and poorly-coded apps than anything new or revolutionary that they’re trying to do.
I’d also argue that customers feel like they’re being fed a line of shit by companies coming up with “innovations” to continually sell new products rather than making meaningful improvements. Apple spent years trying to pretend that nothing was wrong with the 2015 Macbook Pro’s “butterfly” keyboard until Joanna Stern of the Wall Street Journal wrote a piece skewering the company’s abysmal strategy, yet it still took until 2020 for Apple to replace a horribly-designed product. Apple would end up settling a class action suit for $50 million in mid-2023. Elon Musk lies so much about his new products that there’s an entire website dedicated to him doing so. The modern smart home is full of devices that constantly listen to you and can be effectively bricked without your consent whenever the vendor decides they no longer wish to support them.
All the while, the internet itself is significantly worse to use. Apple and Google’s App Stores are full of “free” apps that are really full of microtransactions and horrible advertisements. Digital advertising has become outright abusive to customers, especially on the mobile web, where a quarter or more of your page is filled with ads or callouts to subscribe. And even those that don’t oftentimes ask for your email address, guaranteeing you a sludge of growth-hacked marketing missives that at times keep coming even when you unsubscribe (and services claiming to help often don’t). Google search has become a sludge of affiliate marketing and SEO content, and even reputable websites are now stuffed with content like “when does this show start?” as a means of tricking Google into sending them traffic. Facebook has become a mess of forced video content and algorithmically-driven nonsense, Instagram no longer reliably shows you your friends’ posts, and Elon Musk has turned Twitter into a steaming pile of crap. Data brokers are literally selling people’s addresses and phone numbers to anybody with a credit card, which is why you keep getting random spam calls all the time. And it all happened in service of pumping their public valuations with eternal growth.
In 2021, tech truly failed the public with the combined cons of the crypto industry and Mark Zuckerberg, each one promising their own falsified kingdoms. Zuckerberg was lying about the metaverse, and while the press furiously ate it up, real people failed to do so because the VR market could never keep up with the obtuse and unrealistic promises of tech’s most quirked-up white boy. Sam Bankman-Fried wasn’t the only person responsible for the crypto con. Reporters incredulously hyped products that didn’t exist while charlatans like Brian Armstrong of Coinbase and the Winklevoss Brothers of Gemini tricked customers into investing billions in a nakedly-manipulated market, making themselves incredibly rich and losing consumers trillions of dollars.
There is no reason to be a “techno-optimist” because the tech industry has outright abused consumers to the point that existing online is a continual war against the internet itself. We are beset with spam calls, spam texts, spam messages on social networks, notifications from apps we forgot we installed, search results that are stuffed with results built specifically to manipulate search engines, emails from companies we’ve bought one thing from, popular home pages full of AI-spun misinformation and algorithms that try and hurt and manipulate us. We cannot simply see a feed of our friends’ thoughts or videos in a chronological order without hitting the right buttons to opt out of the monetization engine of various digital warlords.
In our workplaces, we’re forced to use products like Microsoft Teams, Asana, and Zoom, all with their own multi-layered settings and annoyances. I’ve talked to at least 15 people that use Salesforce at work that both hate it and aren’t completely sure what it does, yet because it continues to make sales and grow by selling to executives that aren’t actually using it, Marc Benioff continues to get richer. And now seemingly every software product wants to add AI without explaining how it’ll make anything better.
This is not cynicism — these are the factual circumstances that the average person faces when they use the internet. The tech industry turned the internet on its users, and has failed to provide many compelling reasons why anyone should trust that any new product will do what a company says it will do, as they have been lied to again and again. People feel manipulated, mistreated and pillaged by the tech industry, and there are few signs the tide will change as tech valuations continue to grow despite products regularly getting worse.
Apple deserves the cynicism and reproach it’s getting for the Vision Pro, just as I deserve to be mocked for buying one (albeit for my upcoming iHeartRadio show). I think it looks cool, I really like the idea of an immersive desktop, and the movie features look great — but it’s also $3500 before tax, an unbelievable sum that should be disqualifying and would be if Apple did not have the single largest marketing engine in the industry.
Even Netflix — which, at one point, was pretty undiscriminating about the platforms it developed for, delivering a Netflix app for Windows Phone, the Wii U, and the PlayStation Vita — is keeping its distance, with its co-CEO Greg Peters describing the Vision Pro as “so subscale that it’s not really particularly relevant to most of our members.” While that’s hardly unreasonable for an entirely new form-factor and product line, Peters hinted that he believes the device will remain niche for the foreseeable future, saying Netflix “[has] to be careful about making sure that we’re not investing in places that are not really yielding a return.”
In a world where Apple wasn’t driven by having to grow by double digit percentages every quarter — something that Tim Cook is absolutely capable of stopping — the Vision Pro would’ve taken another 3 years and cost $2500 less, been lighter, not had such a large battery pack, and might have even had more than 150 apps, as opposed to the 3000 available on the launch of the Apple Watch in 2015. Instead, the future is once again reserved for those that can afford it, delivered in an expensive, clunky and confusing way that requires scanning your face on a phone.
And I fundamentally believe that Apple, like many tech companies, has become disconnected from the average person. There are no killer apps for the Vision Pro, no “must see” experiences, just a coterie of different things that you can already do on another device that you already own. In many ways, Zuckerberg routed Apple by lying that he’d created the metaverse. Had Tim Cook delivered this device in 2021, I believe the press would’ve given it a warm reception despite its lack of use cases beyond “doing shit you already do in a computer world.” Then again, that’s exactly what Zuckerberg promised, and why he’s so excited to see Apple enter the market and do the work for him.
I am not sure how the tech industry changes its course, as doing so would be walking back a decade of growth-at-all-costs business strategies that make user experiences subordinate to showing Wall Street you grew 11% in a quarter. Tech companies have walked away from consumers, treating them like crops to be harvested rather than living creatures experiencing a world that has become unquestionably marred by the growth-addicted markets.
Apple could, potentially, have really changed things by having the patience to make the Vision Pro affordable and necessary. But how would it convince shareholders that it was going to grow forever?
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