Despite mostly rave reviews of the latest iPhone 5S, critics are already grousing that Tim Cook and Jonathan Ive are leaving the truly big ideas on the table. There was no iTV, no iWatch, and no answer to Google’s Glass. "Apple is no longer an innovative company, says the man who helped Steve Jobs design the Mac," declared a headline on Quartz.
There’s something to this line of criticism but it also ignores much of Apple’s history. The Cupertino company has historically gone through long lulls in between major products announcements, and has rarely been first to market in any new product category—the iPod came out years after the first MP3 player, and the iPhone was initially seen by some prominent critics as laughably overpriced and under-powered compared to more mature platforms.
But more importantly, the idea that Apple is behind Google when it comes to wearable computers may simply be wrong. As I talked to former employees for Fast Company’s oral history on Apple design, I was told repeatedly that Jonathan Ive’s industrial design lab at 1 Infinity Loop is chock full of new products, but that unlike Google, which will happily release unfinished or not-entirely-thought-through products as "beta" releases, the company is too disciplined to let the public see them. Among the many products that Apple has secretly developed over the years: a Google Glass-like headset.
Fast Company has learned that Apple started working on an augmented reality headset at least as early as 2006, but put the idea on ice because it seemed a mere curiosity compared to the iPhone. The possibility of some sort of iGlass device was confirmed by Tony Fadell, the former iPod division head who is now the CEO of Nest Labs, during an interview for the oral history. Fadell called it "the craziest thing" he was involved in during his time at the company, and said the device was, "something like Google Glass."
"I built a bunch of those prototypes," said Fadell, who told me that the initial thinking was a face-mounted visor with a built-in screen that would create an immersive entertainment experience—"like you’re sitting in a theater." The idea was abandoned to focus on the iPod and iPhone. "We had such success with the things we were already doing that we didn’t have time to do anything else," he said.
During his tenure at Apple, Fadell also recalled experimenting with an Apple-branded digital camcorder—an idea that was shelved with the release of the Flip camera—and a more elegant remote control. "But we had the tiger by the tail with the products we already had," he said. "So we decided to focus on the biggest markets."
Though the possibility that Apple might have launched a face-mounted computer around the time it launched the iPhone is tantalizing to those who would love to see the company expand its product line, the decision to shelve the project makes a great deal of sense. Since its earliest days, Apple’s design philosophy has called for focusing on a handful of broadly popular consumer products rather than trying to meet every niche. The iPhone accounted for $80 billion in revenue last year, more than Microsoft’s entire product line. With the new lower-cost and colorful handsets designed to appeal to price conscious users, that figure will likely climb higher.
Fadell’s comments also provide a blueprint for how Apple might approach a Glass-like headset should it ever build one. Unlike Google, which has positioned Glass as a communications device—useful for searching the web, checking email, and taking picture—Fadell and his colleagues imagined the headset as a new way to consume media, a sort of next generation headphone set that could create a personal home theater. Whereas Google’s designers built a high-end device that seems targeted at geeks (and perhaps surgeons) Apple’s vision is strictly mass market. (This is why the long-rumored iWatch, when it is finally released, is more likely to be a souped up health tracker and music player rather than the wearable smartphone that many hope for.
It’s a fair bet that Apple will probably release a Glass-like headset some day, but if the company’s past history is any guide, it’ll be a mass product. And when it does, Apple skeptics will point to some other geeky curiosity and complain that the company is out of ideas.
[Illustration by Kelly Rakowski/Co.Design]