We've done this dance before: Will Apple enter the (fill in the product category) market, or won't it? It happened with the Apple Watch, and it's happening right now with virtual reality.
During the company's quarterly earnings call Tuesday, CEO Tim Cook said this about the VR space: "I don't think [VR] is niche. It's really cool and has interesting applications."
He's right: VR is really cool, and it does have interesting applications, but perhaps his most telling comment was that it isn't niche anymore.
I could be reading too much into it, but perhaps Cook was preparing investors for what's to come - an Apple VR headset, or iVR, as my colleague Matt Swider dubbed it.
No matter Cook's intentions with his comments, now is the perfect time for Apple to get into virtual reality for a number of reasons.
The iPhone is still Apple's biggest revenue generator by a mile, but sales are slowing. A virtual reality headset wouldn't necessarily bring in tens of millions of dollars in profit like the iPhone does, but perhaps if it's a device like the Samsung Gear VR, it could help reinvigorate Apple's stalling handset sales.
If it's a standalone device, it would likely be put in Apple's small yet growing 'Other Products' group, which includes devices like the Apple Watch and Apple TV. Revenue is paltry when compared to the iPhone, but it's home to arguably Apple's more innovative and interesting products.
A VR headset would fit right in with the "others" and could help drive revenue here (or at least investor faith) to greater heights.
VR headset with an Apple twist
Apple has built its brand on doing a few products very well, and it would no doubt bring its penchant for premium builds to a VR headset, which, while good for Apple, could be just as good for virtual reality.
VR is maturing, yes, but it's sitting on the cusp of breaking through in the public imagination. We're still waiting for Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR and HTC Vive Pre to hit the market, and though signs point to Google building its own VR hardware, it could be months or even years before we see the fruit of that labor.
There's a better than decent chance Apple will wait until Google releases its own headset (Apple is almost always the last to market), but in this case, why wait?
Google already has Cardboard, so Apple could jump in now with a premium headset to lead the market. Tied to the rich iOS ecosystem, Apple would have a head start on those "interesting applications" Cook referenced. If Apple's been paying attention to HoloLens, it's seen what's possible. If it's not excited by the possibility of creating equal or better applications, I can't think of what would inspire it to do so.
Perhaps Apple is content to let Oculus take the lead on VR, but the longer it waits, the greater risk it runs of falling too far behind. At this week's Sundance Film Festival, VR is being featured in a major way. It's where content creation is headed - even Samsung is opening its own VR film studio - and by sitting out, Apple is letting the future pass it by.
I don't doubt Apple is actively developing or has already has a prototype VR headset ready to go. I'm not expecting Apple to reveal its headset tomorrow, but an event like WWDC in June would be perfect for an unveiling. The time is right for the company to show us what it's been working on. Apple has never been one to do something just because everyone else is doing it, but at this point, it can't afford to wait any longer.
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