AR includes any technology that uses digital information to seamlessly enhance the real world. Over the next 10 years, AR will replace the screen as we know it, including those of smartphones and tablets. Apple generated 69% of its revenue from the iPhone and 7% from the iPad last quarter; additionally, the company takes a cut of all software sold on those platforms. If Apple doesn’t find a way to dominate AR, it could see three-quarters or more of its business disappear as new AR-focused hardware supplants the smartphone as our interface to the world.
The good news for Apple is that it’s culturally built to make the move from the smartphones of today to the AR-optimized smartphones and wearables of the future.
AR is delivered through our smartphones, and many of us use the technology without even thinking about it. For example, Snapchat’s lenses allow users to change what their face looks like in messages, adding dog ears or an aquarium background. Another example is the Pokemon Go craze of 2016; gamers visited real-world locations to catch characters in the game.
These early applications may seem gimmicky, but the AR of the future will enable far more utility. Use cases like dynamic visual how-to manuals for hands-on work, facial recognition to help recall details about a relationship with someone you’re with, earphones that filter out background noise so you can only hear your conversation in a noisy environment, and clothing that adjusts its temperature based on the weather will make us wonder how we ever lived without true AR.
Google, Microsoft, and Facebook are also competing in the AR space. While Google holds an advantage in building up a data base to use with the technology, Apple holds a trump card over all the others: design.
To enable persistent, seamless augmentation of the real world, compelling AR will require the adoption of wearables. The most talked about device for AR delivery is some form of connected glasses. While glasses will likely be an enabler of AR beyond the smartphone, audio devices, watches, and even connected clothing also belong in the AR category. As with all clothing and accessories, consumers will require wearable AR devices to look fashionable, unobtrusive, and not obviously a computer (Google Glass failed at all of these). Therefore, design, not function, is the most important factor for AR to make the leap from a smartphone feature to the computing interface of the future.
No one makes more fashionable electronics than Apple. Neither Google nor Microsoft has the core design competency to create compelling consumer product designs for wearables, which means they will most likely be relegated to primarily providing software. That puts Apple in the familiar position of integrating premium hardware and software.
We’ve seen this game before. Microsoft dominates PC market share, with Apple a distant second. Google’s Android dominates smartphone market share, with Apple again a distant second. In both cases, Apple offers the best user experience by controlling both the hardware and software, which allows the company to capture an outsized portion of industry profits relative to their total unit share.
So what’s next for Apple in AR? True to their typical pattern of innovation, Apple is taking baby steps. First, AirPods, the company’s new wireless earphones, represent an early AR product that enables a constant connection with the voice-activated personal assistant Siri. The AirPods show Apple’s design advantage and remain limited in supply given the high demand for them. Second, Apple announced its Clips video app last week, which lets users add effects to video messages like they can with Snapchat’s lenses. Third, the next iPhone, coming this fall, is rumored to include a 3D mapping chip that would enable Apple and third-party developers to interact with a user’s environment in new ways—Apple’s first AR-optimized smartphone. The AR-optimized smartphone bridges the gap from the smartphones of today to the AR wearables of tomorrow, extending the runway of the smartphone as the predominant AR device for the next three to five years.
Beyond these baby steps, Apple has been uncharacteristically vocal about its interest in AR. In February, CEO Tim Cook said he views AR as “a big idea like the smartphone.” However, Cook also admitted, “AR is going to take a while because there are some really hard technology challenges there.” The main challenges include miniaturization of the components necessary to deliver a high-quality experience and battery capacity. Apple is probably already working on a wearable glasses product, but 2019 would likely be the earliest we see Apple Glasses for one reason: user experience. Apple will not release a product that is half-baked and provides a poor user experience. A two-year wait for Apple Glasses may be disappointing, but Apple has shown that it is comfortable entering a market well after its competitors so long as it offers a better product.
Steve Jobs killed off Apple products that weren’t exceptional because he knew that if he didn’t do it, someone else would. That guidance remains deeply ingrained in the company’s DNA. Apple's AR dilemma isn’t whether or not to kill the iPhone, but how long it will take the company to viably do so. It’ll be worth the wait.
Gene Munster, Doug Clinton, and Andrew Murphy are managing partners at Loup Ventures. Munster and Murphy are investors of Apple, and Murphy is an investor of Google.