The iPhone is a dead end for Meta's AR plans
The first true AR headset from Meta will likely come with a pocket computer. This is a huge advantage for Apple, which could also bring an AR headset, and has already sold millions of pocket computers with the iPhone.
Meta's AR headset, which is the centerpiece of Zuckerberg's Metaverse vision and a class of devices that Meta's CEO calls the "holy grail," is expected to launch in 2026, according to recent reports. Assuming that technical challenges don't get in the way.
AR headsets should be powerful and run for a long time, and at the same time they should be slim and fashionable. This is a major hurdle. The main computing unit will therefore most likely be outsourced to an external device, since current chips and batteries cannot do both together. The smartphone would be ideally suited for this task; after all, we carry it with us all the time.
"Our vision for true AR glasses will require years of progress making our devices slimmer, lighter, faster, and more powerful, all while consuming way less battery power and generating much less heat," Meta's Chief Technology Officer Andrew Bosworth said in his latest annual report. He acknowledged that about half of Metaverse's spending goes toward AR.
AR headset from Apple's grace
This is where the problems begin for Meta. The iPhone dominates the smartphone market in the US, but is not a good AR player for Meta.
Apple has privileged access to hardware and interfaces and can make it very difficult for Meta to use the smartphone as a player. Meta is at the mercy of Apple's goodwill in this regard.
Considering that the Apple probably has its own AR headset in development, you can already guess how accommodating the company will be. No matter how good Meta's AR headset gets, it will never work as seamlessly with iOS as Apple's own product.
This is also suggested by the recent report from The Information, which describes how Meta "spent months trying" to get its September 2021-launched Ray-Ban Stories video glasses, a potential predecessor to Meta's AR headset, to work with the iPhone.
"Meta wanted photos taken on the glasses to automatically download to users’ phones without requiring them to open Meta’s app. But because of how Apple’s software operates, the team couldn’t get the automatic download to work when the phone was inactive. At the last minute, they had to change course, leading to a chaotic scramble ahead of the product’s launch," the report says.
Who wants another device in their pocket?
I own the Ray-Ban Stories and can confirm that downloading pictures and videos is quite cumbersome - or at least could be solved more elegantly.
First you have to open Meta's own smartphone app, then wait for the Bluetooth connection between the headset and smartphone (or initiate it manually), and then start the download. If there were the same Ray-Ban Stories with the same features from Apple where this process was automated, I would probably buy Apple's product. And that's just one example of how Apple could gain a competitive advantage through better iOS integration.
The Information further writes that Meta has been trying to develop a smartwatch that can also function as a player. But the first of three planned devices was abandoned this year. The company is also working on a pocket computer in the form of a smartphone, it adds.
But here, too, you can ask the rather rhetorical question of what consumers will prefer: AR headsets that can be conveniently used with the iPhone, or AR headsets that require another device besides the iPhone. Meta's AR headset will not be able to replace the smartphone, at least not in the first generation.
Not to mention the price disadvantage for Meta if it has to sell headset and computer, while Apple probably only offers the headset for iPhone.
Meta's iPhone dilemma
Meta CTO Andrew Bosworth confirmed this issue in a Q&A session on Instagram. Likely and for the foreseeable future, the first true AR headsets would require a pocket computer, Meta's chief technology officer said. He added that Apple's potential advantage is that customers already have one with them and don't need to carry an additional device.
Ultimately, Meta wants to break out of the Apple and Google ecosystem and offer its own new computing platform. That's a key point of Zuckerberg's grand Metaverse plan. The problem for Meta is that this transition is fluid: Mankind will not switch from smartphones to AR headsets in a day. The former represent the dominant computing paradigm, and that's likely to remain the case for a long time.
Meta needs the smartphone to build a new computing platform. In this sense, the Google and Apple ecosystem is akin to a ladder. The question is whether it will support Zuckerberg - or collapse under him.