Apple’s Vision Pro isn’t a full-fledged Mac replacement — yet

Though Apple is touting its high-tech headset as the world’s first 'spatial computing' platform, for most people it’s more like a technologically advanced proof of concept.

Vision Pro

“I haven’t upgraded the Mac (or PC) I use for work in a years. I was going to replace it this year, and I’m wondering if I could or should get an Apple Vision Pro instead. What do you think?”

I’ve heard more variations of that question in the past two weeks than I expected. It’s not a bad idea in some respects.

  • Apple itself is pitching Vision Pro as the first spatial computer platform.
  • The device uses an M2 processor on par with Macs from a year ago.
  • There are already tons of productivity apps and tools for the device (Office, Zoom, Webex, Things, Fantastical, and Photoshop immediately jump to mind).
  • Apple has made no secret of the fact it sees the device as a workplace tool.
  • The visionOS 1.1 beta has relatively broad support for mobile device management (MDM), meaning Vision Pro will be a good corporate citizen in short order (something that was unexpected; watchOS, for instance, took eight years to get even rudimentary MDM support).
  • It allows users to essentially have unlimited display space, unlike desktop or laptop displays.

I can see the wheels turning in people’s heads when they consider that this is a device with clear potential well beyond playing with dinosaurs, reliving moments with spatial photos or watching immersive movies or other content. It draws you into a slightly different but incredibly compelling world and it feels like someone’s handed you something from a magical future.

Sure, the starting price of $3499 is hard to justify. Still, there are all these tantalizing “but…” thoughts. Part of that thought process is “but I can use it to replace all my Macs or PCs or other devices.”

(I won’t lie, I’ve had these same thoughts. Had I not upgraded all my tech gear last year, I’d probably entertain them.)

But to those who’ve asked, my answer would be no. Let’s talk about why.

First-gen Apple devices usually fall short, even when revolutionary

The first reason to say no isn’t about what the Vision Pro can do. It’s that Apple has a pretty consistent track record of delivering first-generation devices that preview what’s possible but don’t fully deliver until one or two generations down the line. Users tend to forget that, because all of these devices have matured into fully formed solutions over time.

Let’s recap:

  • The original Mac had no hard drive, barely enough RAM, and no software ecosystem or compatibility; it would be years before the Mac began to deliver on all of its potential with the Mac II and Mac SE.
  • The less said about the Mac Portable, the better. But Apple’s second attempt at a portable Mac, the PowerBook 100 line hit the mark so well that we still use the same form factor for laptops even now.
  • Mac OS X 10.0 was practically a beta operating system when it was released (after a public beta); it wasn’t until Mac OS 10.2 (Jaguar) that the OS was really be viable for daily computing, and the Classic environment lasted for years.
  • The first iPod needed iTunes on a Mac, used a chunky FireWire cable and couldn’t be rebooted if it froze. By the time the iPad nano shipped, iPods were ubiquitous.
  • The iPhone arrived in 2007 particularly spartan with no apps, a single carrier, and outdated get connectivity.
  • The original AppleTV was nothing but a stripped down and underpowered Mac that did little more than let you access content from the iTunes Store and YouTube; it wouldn’t get its own App Store for several years.
  • The original Apple Watch didn’t even get Series One status; Apple replaced it with both Series 1 and 2 a year later along with a complete overhaul of the user experience. (Remember the weird option to send your heartbeat to another Apple Watch user?)
  • The iPad was mostly fully baked, but arguably the only major initiatives Apple nailed on the first try were the transitions to Intel chips and then to Apple Silicon

That list covers every major product Apple has shipped in 40 years and I’m just focused on limitations here. Each had teething problems, hardware failures, and their share of bugs like any new technology.

You can’t look through that list and say each of those products was guaranteed to be a big success at launch. Any of them could’ve failed miserably (and some did at first). In every case, the product needed time in the market to find its footing. Some are still trying to find it.

Will Apple let it fly?

By every account, using the Apple Vision Pro is an incredible experience. The question that remains unanswered is whether Apple will inadvertently undermine  that experience.

Think about the iPad. The iPad Pro and iPad Air use the same M-series chips as today’s Macs, but they’re tied to a software platform that holds them back. (Apple has yet to truly separate iOS and iPadOS, and it shows.)

Mouse support for the iPad exists, but it’s not great. There’s a file system, but you can’t easily view and organize documents compared to a Mac. Apple limits the types of apps that can be built for it. And it’s still a single-user device (except in the education market).

Apple TV is in a similar boat. It goes years without hardware updates. It took Apple the better part of a decade to create an App Store for it and turn it into something more than a generic streaming box. Advances come in fits and starts with little predictability.

With those examples in mind, it’s clear that how Apple moves to evolve visionOS will determine whether it moves forward or stagnates. Jumping all in on such a nascent platform is taking a risk.

Apps and ecosystem

There’s been a lot of talk about developers rebelling against creating apps for visionOS, given Apple’s attempts to keep its walled garden intact (and extract a percentage of every digital purchase). Whether that’s the real story — or developers are simply moving slowly to build Vision Pro apps — the 1,000 or so apps available at this point pales in comparison to the app ecosystem for other Apple platforms.

There’s also the question of whether the apps that do exist are mature enough for full-time use. With something so new, where the vast majority of developers had to work with a simulator and not the actual hardware, what’s available isn’t always going to hit the mark; there will be tweaks and changes, but they won’t happen immediately.

Ultimately, it’s the app developer ecosystem that makes or breaks a platform. So far, there isn’t enough to bet on if you aren’t going to have a Mac or PC as a backup.

Even so, it’s not a ‘hard’ no

At the moment, I can’t suggest Apple Vision Pro as a Mac or PC replacement any more than I would’ve advised an iPad as one 14 years ago.

Today, I see the iPad as a bona fide laptop replacement despite some of its limitations. It didn’t get there overnight and the same will be true with the Apple Vision Pro. I have little doubt that five years from now, I’ll be telling users a different story: the Vision Pro’s successors can be the only computer that you need. I do believe visionOS and the hardware will get there — at least for most users. (It might even take less time than that.)

For now, the Vision Pro is best seen as a companion device. It’s a splash of cold water to say that, but nobody wants to make a $3500 mistake.

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