Could the HoloLens be Microsoft’s iMoment?

Back at the turn of the century, Apple had already reclaimed a bit of momentum with the release of the iMac following the return of Steve Jobs. But his announcement of the iPod in October 2001 really marked the birth of the Apple we know today, at least cinematically. The Jobs movie of 2013 opens with Ashton Kutcher unveiling the music device.

There are parallels between the iPod and HoloLens. Both represented a tight integration of hardware and software and both come in market categories where there were early signs of interest but no strong mass market adoption. And both represented fairly radical departures for their companies into the unknown.

Minecraft in HoloLens.
Minecraft in HoloLens.

But there are also fundamental differences between the Apple that Jobs returned to and the Microsoft that Satya Nadella inherited a year ago. For one, despite the blows that Microsoft has taken, its overall financial health has remained excellent. Apple, on the other hand, was on its deathbed when Jobs returned; he, unlike Nadella, was a co-founder. That said, Nadella has recognized the value of “founder DNA” by asking Bill Gates to devote more of his time to Microsoft. Furthermore, the iPod was originally conceived as a complementary accessory to the Mac. The HoloLens, unlike the iPod, is an independent device, albeit one that extends Microsoft’s Windows franchise.

So, perhaps the HoloLens is more akin to the iPhone, which shrunk down the capabilities of not the user interface of the PC. Indeed, Microsoft has positioned the HoloLens as “the next PC” although the smartphone has already claimed that mantle and Windows 8 showed that the company can get a little overzealous in labeling things “PCs.”

But the HoloLens is at once more capable and less capable than the iPhone. On one hand, it is something of a superplatform that breaks with the decades-long miniaturization progression from mainframe to minicomputer to desktop, laptop, tablet, smartphone, wearable and coming wave of products that will live inside the body. The display of those products have generally been limited by the physical boundaries of glass. The HoloLens, though, can incorporate the 2D interfaces of yore to enable applications like Skype.

On the other hand, despite its recent growth spurt, much of the power of the iPhone remains in its pocketable size ability to get through (most of) a day on power. While the efficiency of the HoloLens will likely improve over time, it’s still unlikely to be a ubiquitous device for the near future. Microsoft isn’t exactly giving up on the smartphone market for HoloLens.

The iPod and iPhone took things that people had already accepted (portable audio via the Walkman and cell phones) and imbued them with capabilities and design beyond their predecessors. Apple Watch is on track to continue that approach. The HoloLens, though, is something without strong precedent, an untested behavior.

Alas, in that way it is somewhat reminiscent of the company’s original Surface table. It represents a new frontier, but one that doesn’t yet have a clear trail.