February 29, 2024

When Steve Jobs unveiled the Macintosh computer 40 years ago this week, it seemed like there was no limit to the things this futuristic device could do, or the number of units Apple could shift. Some 72,000 Macs were shipped during its first 100 days on sale, far outstripping Apple’s goal of 50,000 Macs — even at a price tag that was the equivalent of $7,300 in today’s money.

But if you’d treated those figures as a sign of corporate health, you would have been badly mistaken. Apple couldn’t make the machines at scale, and would lose the PC wars to the makers of copycat beige boxes that ran MS-DOS and its successor, Windows. Within a year, Jobs would be ousted in a boardroom feud. His company was destined to spend the next 12 years in the wilderness.

History doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme, and something similar is happening today with Apple’s Vision Pro. The $3,500 augmented reality headset has sold out its preorders. Apple isn’t saying how many units that is, but analysts estimate upwards of 160,000. Half the price of that first Macintosh, with more than double the sales, in three days instead of 50? Clear some space on the tech history wall of fame!

The bots are coming

Not so fast. Turns out the deeper we dig into those numbers, the worse they look for Apple. Not only do sales seem to be slowing after the initial rush of early adopters, but not all those early adopters were on the up-and-up. A chunk of them were scalpers, buying large numbers of headsets at a time so they can turn around and sell them on eBay.

Apple’s safeguards to prevent unscrupulous actors from buying multiple Vision Pros have failed, and “several thousand” units were sold to bot accounts, according to a report by Kasada, a company that specializes in defending against bots. Technically you can only buy one Vision Pro per Apple ID, but Kasada found a script that can circumvent that limit — and evidence that one bot alone generated multiple IDs to successfully check out 1,592 Vision Pro pre-orders.

Given that eBay sellers are already offering Vision Pros for up to $10,000 — a clear profit of more than $6,000 each — there’s a significant incentive for scalpers using bots to break the rules. Even at a more conservative markup of $2,500 per unit, that one bot “would represent $4 million in profit” if it sells the lot, Kasada says. That’s quite a payday for one weekend of work.

So the pre-sale numbers were skewed by scalpers. But there may be worse news for Apple in the fact that the ship dates for Vision Pros are holding steady at roughly 5 to 7 weeks out from the time you order. Contrast that with the iPhone, where the number of weeks you have to wait when a new model is released can climb into the double digits.

The steady wait time “indicates that demand may quickly taper off after the core fans and heavy users place their orders,” wrote Ming-Chi Kuo, an analyst at TF International Securities and an expert on Apple’s global supply chain. Kuo calls the Vision Pro a “niche product” and points out that it only took 0.007 percent of Apple’s global user base to sell out pre-orders of the headset.

So who’s it for?

With the Macintosh, the value proposition was clear. Here, for the first time, was a mass-market point-and-click PC designed so that pretty much anyone could use it. Graphic design, word processing, spreadsheets: all were now accessible for the first time.

With the Apple Vision Pro, however, Apple has struggled to explain exactly who needs one or why. The Black Mirror-style launch video is a case in point. Its main character, Will, hasn’t used the Vision Pro before, and repeats “oh, wow” several times as an Apple product manager walks him through displaying his photos, entering immersive environments, and firing up an app called Encounter Dinosaurs.

But so what? What is going to keep Will coming back to the Vision Pro after the “oh, wow” factor has faded? Where’s the repeatable “must have” aspect, the sales-driving feature we call a killer app? (No, killer dinosaurs don’t count).

To be fair to Apple, this is a common problem for VR and AR headset makers. Fun fact: three of the last four most recent citations for “killer app” in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary are all from articles pointing out that neither the Meta Quest 3 nor the Vision Pro have one.

Perhaps the killer app is a game; perhaps it’s the fact that you can have multiple virtual monitors open on your real-life desktop. (Although speaking as someone who’s bought a couple of external monitors in the past year, I can say I’m heartily glad I don’t have to use them with a bulky battery-hogging device strapped to my face.)

While we’re waiting for the killer app, the mood of most tech observers is turning hostile. After an initial burst of excitable stories from Apple’s hand-picked reviewers, we seem to be in the backlash stage: Witness today’s articles on how often headsets end up in closets, and how the Vision Pro’s weight might lead to neck pain and muscle fatigue.

All the sales so far has told us is that Apple has successfully appealed to its one-percenters (or its 0.007%-ers), the deep-pocketed hipsters who want to be the first to make their friends go “oh, wow” by showing off new tech. And it has successfully attracted scalpers, who know there’s a massive markup to be found in selling headsets to hipsters — the ones who can afford to not wait five weeks to show it off.

Perhaps the killer app will be found, in which case Tim Cook will look like Steve Jobs circa 1997, when the founder returned in triumph. But at the moment, he’s looking a little more like Steve Jobs circa 1985 — and these supposedly strong sales figures aren’t helping.