Apple Glass will launch in September 2021.
Or maybe not. Getting the launch date right isn’t what matters. What matters is the logic you use for determining the future.
If you’re a brand, developer, location-based business or anyone with a stake in the future of technology, you need to figure out how aggressively to plan for a significant and paradigm-changing shift.
Because it’s clear that the future is coming.
Glasses Will Change The Computing Paradigm
Within 5-10 years (according to Qualcomm) your glasses will be able to ‘merge’ augmented and virtual realities and will be untethered to another device. In other words, you’ll be able to do most of what you do on a phone but through your glasses.
In addition to moving computing to eyewear, the physical world itself will now be a much more active participant in our digital experiences. For example:
- We’ll have wayfinding, but on steroids. You won’t just get driving directions, you’ll get directions to a specific product within a specific aisle of the store
- Our glasses will seamlessly interact with environments. Walk into a Starbucks and you’ll be able to see menu items, reward points, and be able to order and pay for product with a few glances and maybe a wave of your fingers.
- Just think of something as simple as Apple’s announcement this week on keyless cars. Now multiply that a thousand-fold.
And so we need to make educated guesses about how quickly this future will arrive. We need to begin making plans.
If we’re developers, we need to figure out how aggressively to push out prototypes and try to guess how quickly they will need to be “glass-ready”.
We look to Apple not because it’s the only game in town. Snapchat, Facebook and Google might be able to steal Apple’s thunder. Nreal, Magic Leap, and North are all attempting (or have attempted) to make in-roads and capture some of the AR magic.
And while Apple may have become predictable and repetitive, it also has a deep bench of innovation, and an ability to fuse hardware, software and chips in a way that others can’t. And so they remain the company that we expect to be a bell weather for AR.
How To Predict Apple’s Next Move
There are a few ways to predict when Apple will launch glasses. (And I should pause here to say that I’ve been deeply informed by lengthy discussions with Robert Scoble, and so I absolutely need to tip my hat to his insights).
- Keep an eye out for leaks. They can provide insight into internal dynamics, provide clues about what features Apple is working on, and give us rough time frames. Currently, leaks are telling is that glasses are coming sometime between Q1 2021 and….2023. A pretty broad range from supposedly insider knowledge! Personally, I view leaks in two ways:
- They’re trial balloons, purposefully floated by Apple to gauge market reactions to particular product features
- They’re internal signals, usually from one department to another. When Tim Cook talked about the issues with VR, I saw it as a signal to the internal teams about where his preferences lay. When Bloomberg reports on internal tensions I see it as signals amongst teams to help define the internal battle lines.
- Sometimes they’re actual leaks. But we don’t know WHICH prototype was leaked, or whether it has been given the green light by the one person who matters.
- Keep an eye on patents. Recent patents for self-correcting prescription lenses are a good example. Patents help us define what features glasses might have, but they don’t get us closer to knowing when glasses will launch. And patents are notorious for protecting ideas that never even make it into products (and are perhaps more defensive in some cases).
- Keep an eye on the code. For me, this is a key element, especially when it comes to AR. Because Apple is making a “play” into AR already by facilitating experiences on phones and tablets. And so the code can provide hints of what’s to come.
- Shrug and just wait like the rest of us. Because anytime you start talking about products that don’t exist yet, you’ll be accused of being a fan or cult member. But at least in my business there’s strategic value in knowing which time ranges you should be planning for.
So we have lots of data but no clear answer.
And so here’s another way to come at this: if you were Tim Cook, what would you do?
State of the Union
First, we should take stock of where we’re at. There are some assumptions built into this, but I don’t think any of them are far-fetched:
- First, let’s not worry about production capacity/capabilities too much. Sure, there are macro conditions right now which are putting pressure on supply chains, but Apple has shown it can manage supply chains like almost no other company on the planet.
- Second, Apple will want to launch with great experiences and a well-prepared developer community. More on that in a bit, but for now it’s enough to say that this year’s WWDC helped expand the tools that developers can use, from depth and facial tracking, to location anchors.
- Third, it’s safe to say that Apple has prototypes. By some accounts there are hundreds of them. These probably range from super simple glasses that do a few things very well, to highly immersive glasses with rich 3D but which are perhaps too clunky looking.
- Fourth, and related to this, let’s assume that Apple has made significant advances in hardware, but still faces challenges around miniaturization and display. This is perhaps the biggest assumption: that Apple isn’t so far ahead of the industry that it has already solved the issue of light pass-through. It’s coming more broadly, but is likely still years away. (This is the ‘ghosting’ effect you get when looking at content through glasses – you can still sort of see through the objects, they have a bit of opacity, because you can’t yet block light itself yet with most AR displays).
- Fifth we are living through strange times. Your guess is probably as good as any economist but the state of the world and economy would tend to suggest that we are not going to be living through a period of exuberance and massive consumer spending any time soon.
- Sixth, and always least important to Apple, there are competitors. We tend to think of Apple as sitting on the sidelines and waiting until others stumble along so that they can come in and do things better. I tend to think this myth is overplayed. It says less about Apple and more about the challenges that other companies face (both in attracting capital and for older companies’ ability to innovate).
Tim Cook’s Decision Points
So based on this State of the Union, imagine you’re in a board room with Tim Cook. On the table in front of you are a series of prototypes for glasses. You’ve been given presentations by the different teams and understand the road maps for things like Swift and Xcode, Apple Silicon and retail.
What do you decide to do?
Decision Point One: Go Big or Small?
I believe the first decision you need to make is whether to wait for “rich” AR glasses.
These are the kinds of glasses everyone thought they might get from Magic Leap: glasses where you can’t differentiate the real from the digital. Glasses where Star Wars characters can pop up in the world around you and you feel like they’re actually there.
I have no reason to believe Apple can launch this kind of product right now where you would be able to wear them out in public.
The teams have therefore also been pitching some kind of AR/VR product that has the same immersion but is something you wear at home. Something so magical and so immersive that it can compete with Playstation or Oculus.
The only other option for ‘rich immersion’ is to wait. Miniaturization will happen. You can still produce these magical glasses, ones that you can wear in public and that do all of these amazing things. But it will take 2-3 years for that to happen.
And so you’re left with three choices:
- Launch “simple” glasses which don’t do TOO much, but which establish your presence as a maker of fashionable prescription glasses that have a few bells and whistles
- Go “immersive” but focus on the living room for now until the tech can be miniaturized. Tackle the VR market. Do what Magic Leap tried to do in competing for time in the living room
- Wait for mind-blowing glasses that you can wear around town. But you’ll need to wait several years.
Decision Point Two: Preparation Points For Developers
The next decision point has to do with apps and experiences. If you launched glasses today, how prepared are developers? How well-developed are the tools? Are all of the pieces in place for amazing experiences (no matter how light-weight the glass interface is)?
With this week’s WWDC, Apple added a few key pieces to the AR armamentarium. They are training an army of AR developers:
- First, prepare “bite-sized” pieces of content, ready for a future display in Apple Glass. These pieces of content will appear in App Clips (a super small version of an app without the need to download that app) and new widgets for your phone’s home screen. SwiftUI is a key component and will allow developers to easily create “widgets” for a variety of outputs.
- Second, encourage developers (and their customers, such as retail stores), to place thousands of AR markers. Through new Apple-specific QR codes (and through NFC and other ways to ‘tap’), users can scan a code and bring up these App Clips.
- Finally, prepare users for AR experiences through the use of spatial audio via their new Air Pods Pro.
And I would add:
- The launch of an AR Cloud. It’s limited right now, with more cities planned, but it’s there. And it will allow some pretty amazing outdoor AR experiences. These point clouds are based on Apple Map data:
- Hand gesture recognition. Which will be key to future glasses.
Now, glasses will be a new form factor. Once launched there will be a whole new framework and developers will need to learn a whole new approach to UI/UX which will probably include things like voice, gestures (nods, shaking the head, etc) and of course the visual language.
One thing to note, of course, is that what Apple announced this week will roll-out in the Fall. Depth tracking and other things facilitated by the LiDAR scanner on iPad may show up on iPhones with the same scanner.
And then Apple will have a period during which it can collect a TON of data on what works and what doesn’t.
Finally, developers aren’t only external. They include all of the internal teams who will need to develop apps that are ready to go when glasses launch: the Maps folks, the iMessage folks, etc.
Why do you think Apple is snatching up so many Magic Leapers?
Decision Point Three: State of the World
This is the biggest wildcard. And I’ll keep it simple: right now, premium products are out of synch with the state of the world.
I don’t expect some new $15,000 watch this Fall. Or to put it a better way: I expect Apple to emphasize some of its more, shall we say, accessibly-priced products.
Robert Scoble has pushed me in this direction. Apple is surely looking at the market and realizing there is going to be increased price sensitivity, and that there will be a massive market of people who want into the Apple ecosystem but need lower price points.
For that reason, I think Cook would dismiss any $2,000 or $3,000 piece of hardware with a wave of the hand. (Besides, didn’t Magic Leap try that already?)
Decision Point Four: Tim Cook Himself
I love Tim Cook. I think he’s operationalized innovation. I love his focus on privacy, on ‘doing good’. I think he’s brought some things to Apple that Steve Jobs just wasn’t built to do (and which Jobs himself recognized in part by promoting Tim in the first place).
I was struck this week that Tim is as dynamic as ever. But that he’s also, well, getting older. He’s 59, and while he could still work for another decade, I’m sure transition planning is at least on the agenda.
So this is a complete wild card. And it’s really more of a random thought: but at some point he will need to begin the transition to a new CEO. And he will need the board’s support.
Wouldn’t Tim want to launch glasses, get them onto the market, and then announce a transition phase to a new CEO?
What Would YOU Decide?
So: based on all of this, what would you decide? Here’s how I think some of the narrative would play out in that board room:
First, let’s launch “lighter” glasses. We want to own the optical market, not the “AR market”. VR isn’t big enough, but the prescription optical market is worth $140B. Prototypes are ready. The only thing left is to choose one of them and then align the 1,000+ glasses team towards refining them and bringing them to market.
Second, lighter glasses will let us launch with a “reasonable” price tag. Maybe not $500 but somewhere sub-$1,000. In today’s world, we don’t want to be launching some multi-thousand dollar device.
Third, let’s NOT launch Q1 2021. The world economy is too weird right now.
Fourth, let’s see what developers do with all the new AR stuff we gave them this year. Let’s get those iPhones with LiDAR out on the market. Let’s keep rolling out more cities to allow location anchoring.
Fifth, use this time to gather a ton of data, build out more of our AR Cloud, tighten up privacy, and work on the supply chain.
Sixth, we need to get these new Macs out into the world. It’s not a critical factor in our decisions about AR, but we don’t want to distract from the backlog of other hardware that we need to launch.
Seventh, 5G won’t be mission critical but it sure would make glasses work a LOT better. And 5G is rolling out a lot slower than some anticipated. Let’s let the new iPhones lead the charge at speeding up 5G adoption.
Eight, let’s start lining up partnerships. Content, locations, someone get Starbucks on the phone.
So Here’s The Plan
“We have one year until the next WWDC. We’re launching a ton of new hardware including desktops, LiDAR and 5G phones, and we just launched a bunch of AR tools to keep developers busy, and providing us data.
At the next WWDC, launch a bunch of major “boosts” to AR. Better image and scene recognition, more of our AR Cloud, etc. Keep the REAL code hidden: the code that makes all of this applicable to glasses.
Announce glasses in Fall 2021. It will be “One More Thing”. Reveal all of the software you need to make your code “glass ready”.
Start delivering glasses to consumers in late Spring 2022.
Over time, expand the range, so that in 2023/2024 the glasses become really really rich. And within a decade, realize that consumers may not even need our phones anymore.”
Speculation? Sure. And there’s a high probability I’m wrong.
But the point of this exercise isn’t to get it right: it’s to come up with a hypothesis for how long you have to prepare.
A paradigm change in computing is coming. We can make educated guesses about how quickly it will arrive. It’s enough to say that you have a year or two to prepare. And to think about how many businesses and how many experiences may fundamentally change in a future of spatial computing.