Remember we all thought Microsoft had the second-mover advantage?

In the PC era, Microsoft excelled in mimicking the features of innovative companies such as Apple and various others, learned from these innovators’ imperfections, and fed their me-now-too products to their gigantic consumer and corporate user base while keeping their cash registers ringing.

It took a while, but with the emergence of smartphones and cloud computing, and the WinPC platform has become less of a bottomless cash cow, Microsoft reinvigorated under Satya Nadella’s leadership with a focus on staying at the forefront of technology innovation.

Most recently, this meant: generative AI.

And then there’s Apple.

While the entire tech world is on a breathtaking race to explore how generative AI can transform about every imaginable knowledge, visuals, or even code creation use case, the term generative AI was verboten in this week’s WWDC presentations – and so was The Metaverse. Even “AI” by itself was rarely mentioned in lieu of what seemed to be Apple’s sanctioned alternative terms: “on-device intelligence” or (if it really couldn’t be said otherwise) “machine learning.”

Instead of generative AI, WWDC was all about Apple’s now officially announced Vision Pro mixed reality (MR) headset. Apple’s unmatched marketing prowess kept rubbing in that the Vision Pro is at the birth of a new category of devices (coined as “spatial computing”) along the lines of how the iPod, iPhone and Apple Watch were said to have been at the birth of new categories when they first launched (more about this later).

a woman sitting on a desk with an Apple vision pro on her face
A Vision Pro in action via Apple

It’s easy to go along with that by just absorbing the enticing presentations and reviewing the impressive specs (how about a standalone computing headset with a slick glass front and an aluminum frame, containing 12 cameras, 5 sensors, 6 microphones, a lidar scanner and a TrueDepth camera, a 4K display for each eye, and massive computing power from a new R1 chip?).

But still… let the Apple marketing engine not fool you: the Vision Pro is a second-mover product, after having been in the works for years and reportedly having gone through several iterations as well as years of delays, to tackle a use case that other large tech players (Meta, Microsoft, Magic Leap, Samsung, Sony, Google among others) have spent billions of dollars on to address – and mostly failed at and to some extent abandoned.

This doesn’t mean that Apple can’t succeed with its second-mover approach. It’s Apple, after all.

Which raises the question what in general is needed for second movers to succeed?

Here’s my take:

1. Successful second movers tackle the hardest and most time-consuming phase of product development: getting the solution 100% right – not 80%, not 95%, not 99%.

With the current lineup of VR, AR, and MR headsets not even close to 100% where they should be, will Apple pull this off eventually? Given their extensive hardware, software and microchip design capabilities, I have little doubt they will.

But when they will, and whether there’s still an interest in MR headsets at that time is a whole other question.

2. Successful second movers launch solutions that serve proven (or at least latent) user needs and adhere to paradigms with which the target customers feel to some extent familiar.

Which leads us to the big question: have all our abandoned VR, AR or MR headsets – and I’m sure you have at least one collecting dust in your closet – be rejected because they weren’t 100% right, there was not enough compelling content available (the perpetual excuse of VR headset vendors), or had simply a too disruptive form factor, too far removed from what customers are used to and would feel comfortable with?

Remember, Segway failed, while e-bikes and e-scooters are thriving. Successful second movers stand on the shoulders of first-attempt predecessors whose experience indicated that there might be a nascent market for that new category after enough tweaking to get the products just right.

And that’s how previous successful Apple device intros succeeded. No matter what Apple’s marketing says, their flagship devices were successful second movers: The iPhone wasn’t the first smartphone; it wasn’t even the first one with a capacitive touch screen. The iPod wasn’t the first hard-drive-based music player, either. And the Apple Watch followed a long list of previous first-generation smartwatches.

So what will the Pro Vision headset be: the next iPod, iPhone, or Smart Watch? Or the second mover stubbornly pursuing to become the next-gen Segway?

I really don’t know. But I do know if any company could pull off leveraging their second mover advantage even with a first mover market that has largely failed to take off, it’s Apple – with its hardware, chips and software development resources, its large and loyal user base, and yes, its unmatched marketing skills.

Finally, I can’t resist bring up this nagging what-if question: what would WWDC have looked like and how would photo & video app developers have reacted – other than the proverbial yawns and shrugged shoulders I’ve noticed this week – if Apple had put all it technology innovation ingenuity eggs in the (generative) AI basket to enable game-changing AI tech to run locally on all Apple devices made possible thanks to a next gen series of Apple processors?

One thing I know for sure: nobody in our photo or video industry would have shrugged their shoulders when considering the security, privacy, and real-time AI generation benefits. Neither would have Apple’s shareholders.

Author: Hans Hartman

Hans Hartman is president of Suite 48 Analytics, the leading research and analysis firm for the mobile photography market and organizer of Mobile Visual 1st, a yearly industry conference about mobile photography.

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