When Tim Cook unveils Apple’s new “mixed reality” headset later this year, he won’t just be showing off the tech giant’s latest shiny gadget.
The Apple chief will also ensure his legacy, including the release of next-generation hardware products that some inside the company believe could one day rival the iPhone.
After seven years in development — twice as long as the iPhone — the tech giant will unveil both virtual and augmented reality headsets in June.
The stakes are high for Cook. The headset will be Apple’s first new computer platform developed entirely under his leadership. The iPhone, iPad, and even the Watch were originally created under Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who died in 2011.
Apple’s growth under Cook has been impressive, from about $350 billion in 2011 to $2.4 trillion. But despite the double-hit launch of the Apple Watch in 2015 and AirPods a year later, which helped turn its accessories division into a $41 billion business, the company has been accused of repeating ideas from the past rather than breaking new ground.
“They’re under tremendous pressure to deliver the headphones,” said a former Apple engineer who worked on product development. “They’ve been postponing the start every year for the past [few] years.”
Launch dates have been a source of tension since the project began in early 2016, according to multiple people familiar with Apple’s internal discussions.
Apple’s operations team wanted to ship a “one-size-fits-all” product, a ski-goggle-like headset that would let users watch immersive 3D video, do interactive workouts or chat with lifelike avatars via revamped FaceTime.
But Apple’s renowned industrial design team warned against patience, wanting to hold off until a lighter version of the AR glasses became technically feasible. Most of the tech industry expects this to last a few more years.
Deciding to go ahead with a debut this year, Cook sided with chief operating officer Jeff Williams, according to two people familiar with Apple’s decision-making, and overruled early objections from Apple designers to wait for the technology to catch up with their vision. .
Just a few years ago, going against the wishes of Apple’s all-powerful design team would have been impossible. But after the departure of its longtime leader Jony Ive in 2019, Apple’s structure has been restructured, with design now reporting to Williams.
Ive’s previous role as lead designer was split into two parts, with Evans Hanky on hardware and Alan Dye on software. However, Hankey announced in October last year that he would be leaving within six months, contributing to the division’s significant staff turnover in recent years.
Taking more control over product development is the “logical progression” of Apple’s trajectory under Cook, the former Apple engineer said. The best part of working at Apple, this person says, used to be engineering solutions to “crazy demands” from the design team, but that’s changed in recent years.
Apple declined to comment.
Apple’s 12-person executive team reflects how the company’s focus has shifted under Cook, himself a former chief operating officer. Of the 12 members, 4 have risen to operational ranks at Apple, while no one has replaced Ive as chief designer, who oversaw the development of the iMac, iPod, and iPhone and Watch.
While the success or failure of the headset could have huge implications for Cook’s reputation as a stable leader and Apple’s perceived ability to continue to innovate, its initial sales will likely be a rounding error.
Apple expects to sell about a million units of its headphones in their first 12 months alone, according to two people familiar with its planning, fewer than the first generations of the iPhone or Apple Watch over the next year of their release.
The sophisticated device, which will contain an array of cameras and high-resolution screens, is expected to cost around $3,000, triple the price of Meta’s Quest Pro, potentially limiting its appeal.
Even $3 billion in annual sales is a tiny fraction of Apple’s nearly $400 billion in revenue last year.