The Vision Pro is a computer for the age of walled gardens

The Vision Pro, Apple’s new “spatial computing” headset, comes with a lot of limits. It’s a technically impressive $3,499 device that’s straining against the basic capabilities of screens, cameras, eye tracking, and sheer component weight. Yet as I’ve watched the Vision Pro go from announcement to release, it’s also seemed held back by something that has little to do with hardware. Apple is trying to create the computer of the future, but it’s doing so under the tech company mindset of the present: one obsessed with consolidation, closed ecosystems, and treating platforms as a zero-sum game.

Apple is launching the Vision Pro with parts of the iPad catalog and a variety of specially tailored immersive content. But out of the box, you might notice a few gaps. You can’t stream Netflix via a native app on the platform or watch videos on a YouTube app. Despite being a device built around interactive 3D computing, you won’t find projects from Apple’s once-close collaborator Epic, whose Unreal Engine and Infinity Blade series helped establish iOS as a home for 3D games. And there’s a remarkable lack of fitness content, given how much Apple has focused on it elsewhere.

Some of these gaps might be temporary, but none of them are surprising. Tech companies’ appetite for platform control and vertical consolidation — owning all layers of a product stack, from media to software to hardware — has turned the relationship with nearly any potential partner into a tense frenemy-ship. In the Vision Pro’s case, YouTube owner Google is a direct “Big Tech” rival that’s long had its own designs on virtual and augmented reality. Netflix is one of the companies that’s sparred with Apple over digital in-app purchase fees. Epic, of course, has been fighting an antitrust case with the company since 2020, when it deliberately broke Apple’s payment rules in Fortnite and was banned from iOS.

Apple is launching a new kind of computing device during a bitter fight with a sizable number of developers over its “walled garden” approach to iOS — an approach it’s also taken on the Vision Pro, which requires developers to sell native apps via the App Store. Under legal pressure in the US and UK, it’s lifted some of its restrictions on third-party stores and payment processors for iOS, but compensated with new fees and other rules. Antagonism between app developers and hardware makers is nothing new, but on older platforms like macOS, it’s widely accepted that developers should be able to reach users without paying a toll. Apple wants that paradigm gone for good, and app makers are pushing back.

Apple is launching a new product amid a bitter fight over its existing ones

Companies like Netflix can’t really avoid the ubiquitous iOS, and Netflix has gotten a much more favorable arrangement than many developers there. On a fledgling device like the Vision Pro, though, it makes sense for them to flex their muscles a little by sticking to the headset’s built-in Safari browser. This prospect has its upsides for the rest of us — it could be a great boon for an open web, especially if Apple starts supporting WebXR, which enables launching spatial web apps via a browser. (During our Vision Pro review period, it didn’t yet.) But meaningful support is far from a sure thing, and the result could be a subpar experience for everyone involved.

To make things even worse, tech giants’ acquisitions are constantly winnowing down the field of successful third-party apps. Let’s go back to fitness. It’s not only a big focus for Apple, it’s one of the few app genres that’s uniquely well-suited for VR, and the Vision Pro is, at its heart, a VR headset. But last year, over the objections of US regulators, Meta snapped up one of the best candidates for inclusion: the polished and successful fitness app Supernatural. It’s a title I’d love to see adapted for the Vision Pro, and if its developers were independent operators, they’d benefit from putting it on more platforms. Post-acquisition, it looks more valuable as an exclusive selling point for Meta’s competing Quest headset. (In case you were wondering, Meta owns the popular fitness / rhythm game Beat Saber as well.)

It’s increasingly hard to make a product that works with an Apple, Google, Amazon, Meta, or Microsoft platform but isn’t in constant danger of getting eaten or crushed by it. Regulation like the Digital Markets Act (DMA) is targeted at fixing this, requiring “gatekeepers,” including Apple, to avoid favoring their own stacks of services. But if Apple’s latest DMA compliance changes are anything to go by, those anti-gatekeeping policies might not change much.

This whole situation is annoying enough on existing platforms, where users are left worrying if their exercise bike will suddenly begin feuding with their smartwatch. But now, Apple is releasing one of the most ambitious attempts at a new all-purpose computing category we’ve seen in years. For all its problems, the Vision Pro is giving us our first glimpse of a computer born into the era of walled gardens… and it’s hard not to wonder what we’re missing as a result.

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