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Why augmented reality on the iPhone will leave Android in the dust

Published Jul 14th, 2017 10:33AM EDT
iOS vs Android

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Apple has never cared much about being the first to market a new product or technology. From the iPod all the way to the Apple Watch, it’s well-established that Apple’s bread and butter involves taking an existing product category to the next level as opposed to creating a new category from scratch. With the iPhone 8 launch and iOS 11 release on the horizon, it appears that history will repeat itself yet again, this time in the augmented reality space.

At WWDC this year, Apple unveiled ARKit, a new suite of developer tools and frameworks that make creating immersive augmented reality applications easier than ever before. Indeed, just days after the first iOS 11 beta was released to developers, we began seeing incredible ARKit demos hit the web. All the more impressive is that even existing iPhone owners will be able to enjoy advanced augmented reality apps without the need for supplemental hardware. What’s more, Apple’s flagship iPhone 8 will reportedly feature 3D laser sensors designed to provide enhanced depth protection for augmented reality apps.

Now what makes Apple’s foray into the augmented reality space interesting is that it’s far from the first tech giant to go after the market. You might recall that Google, for example, unveiled Project Tango three years ago. Nonetheless, it appears as if Google’s head-start won’t be able to stop Apple from swooping in and owning the mobile-based augmented reality market outright.

Part of Google’s problem is that Project Tango requires specialized hardware, and given the fragmentation problem that still plagues Android, the vast majority of Android users aren’t even running Project Tango compatible devices. In contrast, ARKit will run just fine on the following devices:

  • iPhone SE
  • iPhone 6s
  • iPhone 6s Plus
  • iPhone 7
  • iPhone 7 Plus
  • iPad Pro (all models)
  • 9.7-inch iPad

To this point, Bloomberg adds that there “are currently only two mobile phones” that support Project Tango, the Phab 2 Pro and the ZenFone AR.

This is a major drawback when you’re in the business of building a new AR ecosystem that weds apps made by third-party developers to millions of smartphone-wielding consumers. Tango is on so few Android devices that developers won’t risk making apps for the system because they worry no one will use them.

It’s the opposite with Apple: If only half of all its active devices download the new iOS 11 operating system this fall, that will be 500 million iPhones and iPads with ARKit. (More than 1 billion Apple devices run iOS, but some earlier models will be incompatible with the new OS). Still, that’s a huge, almost-instant market for AR developers to target.

Put simply, the gargantuan pool of existing iOS users essentially means that the augmented reality market is Apple’s to lose. Further, even if Google could get handset manufacturers on the same page software wise, the camera schemes on Android varies wildly from device to device. The end result is that iOS 11 will prevent iPhone and iPad users with incredibly cool app experiences that Android will simply be unable to match.

Looking back, Tim Cook’s enthusiasm for augmented reality over the past few months is starting to make a lot more sense.

Yoni Heisler Contributing Writer

Yoni Heisler has been writing about Apple and the tech industry at large with over 15 years of experience. A life long expert Mac user and Apple expert, his writing has appeared in Edible Apple, Network World, MacLife, Macworld UK, and TUAW.

When not analyzing the latest happenings with Apple, Yoni enjoys catching Improv shows in Chicago, playing soccer, and cultivating new TV show addictions.