June 6, 2023

Betting against Apple is a bad bet

Yesterday, Apple unveiled something that everybody knew was coming, but nobody exactly knew what to expect. What we saw, the Apple Vision Pro, is a VR/AR headset that is, by first appearances, the most advanced product of its kind. 

But will that be enough?

The jury is still out on whether people actually want to wear and use goggles with screens stuffed into them. Meta has been betting the farm on this idea, spending billions of dollars over the past few years to develop a line of headsets and accompanying software, and the results have been mixed.

The Meta Quest Pro tends to get decent reviews, and the cheaper Meta Quest 2 is the best-selling headset out there. Before we sold out agency, we bought our team members the latter (then called Oculus Quest 2) as a holiday gift, and everybody liked it – but then, one by one, they ended up lost in storage bins or the back of the closet.

I wrote then that VR felt like the smartphone in 2007, and I still half-standby that. There is something magically immersive about it, and I think that there is something there. But I also now believe that it has a ways to go. It’s still clunky, both with hardware and software. It’s still finding its market. It still needs the killer app.

The Vision Pro might change that, or it might be a massive failure. With a 2024 launch, that particular jury has a long way to go before it reaches a verdict.

Perhaps the most significant point of criticism in the immediate aftermath of the launch is the product’s anticipated price of $3,499. When Tim Cook announced the number, there was an audible groan from the crowd.

It’s a steep price tag and will likely keep all but the top end of the market away for the product’s first generation. However, that’s probably intentional.

Apple has always positioned itself as a premium brand, and they have repeatedly used the strategy of starting a new product as a status symbol before introducing more accessible models later on. The first Apple Watch had a model that topped out at $17,000. They still sell a microfiber polishing cloth for $19. Like luxury brands in fashion and automobiles, Apple is perfectly fine being aspirational.

There’s a repeated trend with new Apple products. It goes something like this:

  • There’s buzz and suspicion about a new product. Maybe a few mockups or tech specs get leaked by suppliers.
  • Apple has a polished keynote and demo where they dramatically unveil the gadget. Everybody freaks out about how cool it is.
  • Then a bunch of critics in the press or on social media start to make fun of it. Nobody is gonna spend that much money. Nobody is gonna wear one of those. Apple is doomed.
  • The product eventually comes out, and twelve months later, it’s the biggest player in the category, and Apple added $50 billion to its market cap.

The iPod and iTunes weren’t didn't have a chance in the age of Napster. Pundits were convinced that the iPhone would fail without a keyboard. The iPad was just a big iPhone that couldn’t make calls (and the name sounded like a feminine hygiene product). Nobody wants to charge their Apple Watch every night. Teeny little AirPods would get lost immediately.

Nearly every time, history follows the same script. iTunes and the iPod brought the company back from the brink. The iPhone is the most successful product of all time. The iPad effectively invented a new category. And Apple Watch and AirPods, both nearly an afterthought for such a large company, are the best-selling watches and headphones in the world.

This is not to say that Apple never makes mistakes. There are flops, too, for sure. While they wandered through the wilderness of the 90s, they launched the Newton, a PDA that nobody wanted. In 1996, the company tried to introduce a video game system called the Pippin, which is long forgotten. In the Jobs 2.0 era, the “cube” Power Mac looked gorgeous but was a bust, and Ping was a confusing social network living in iTunes that never took off. Recently, in the Tim Cook age, the Touch Bar MacBooks have proven to be a gimmick.

Apple isn’t perfect. Nobody is. But if any company can pull off the gargantuan task of convincing us to strap a computer to our faces, they’re probably the ones.

When I graduated from high school in 2007, I took $1,000 that I earned from summer jobs and graduation presents and put it into the stock market. In my business classes then, we’d always talk about Apple and Google and figure that they’ve already become big companies – that the rise was over. So since I “missed” Apple then, I spread that modest investment around over a few brands I knew: The Gap, Southwest Airlines, and some then-buzzy solar company whose name I forget.

Bad bet. That tiny portfolio was shellacked by the great recession a year later and limped along for years afterward. If instead I took that same $1000 and invested it in Apple in June 2007, it would be worth about $50,000 today. Oy vey.

Apple’s an outlier. It’s a singular force in the economy that is so different from everybody else that I prohibit my students from using it as an example in class. Something about them means that the rules everybody else plays with just don’t apply.

Will things stay this way forever? Almost certainly not. But is it wise to bet against them today? I’d rather place my chips somewhere else.

About the Author

Ben Guttmann ran a marketing agency for a long time, now he teaches digital marketing at Baruch College, just released his first book – Simply Put, and works with some cool folks on other projects in-between all of that. He writes about how we experience a world shaped by technology and humanity – and how we can build a better one.

Get my new book, it just came out.

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