It is simply too early to call the Apple Watch a flop

Even Tim Cook doesn’t know what’s going to happen.
Even Tim Cook doesn’t know what’s going to happen.
Image: AP Photo/Eric Risberg
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Will the Apple Watch become Apple’s next big growth driver? Or will it endure as a disappointing “hobby” project? While tempting to make a call now, it is simply too soon.

Fast Company, however, has already declared it a dud. A recent headline, which has gained some traction, reads “Why The Apple Watch Is Flopping.” Its author, Mark Wilson, had previously written an article called “You Guys Realize The Apple Watch Is Going To Flop, Right?” And Wilson seems pleased with his quick conclusion. “The Apple Watch, despite years of hype before it was even announced, appears to be flopping after all,” he writes.

Wilson’s evidence mostly consists of a couple recent reports. The first finds that Apple Watch online orders in the US have collapsed from their initial levels (see Quartz’s earlier coverage here) and the second says Fitbit fitness trackers are still outselling the Apple Watch.

It seems reasonable that US online orders could have declined from their early, hype-fueled and pent-up levels.

Not that we’d know. “There is no reliable information on Apple Watch sales,” long-time mobile industry analyst Horace Dediu writes. And Apple has already announced that it would not immediately disclose quarterly watch shipments.

One source—Slice Intelligence, the company whose e-commerce shopping receipt data is cited in most preliminary reports—has seen a drop in orders. But that is simply one estimated measurement, from one unproven source, for one country.

And as Dediu notes, as the Apple Watch is increasingly available in Apple retail stores and other retail outlets, the share of total orders placed via Apple’s website seems likely to decrease. “To see US-only online purchases drop after a period of pent-up demand and as store inventory becomes available is not interesting and says almost nothing about the product’s performance,” he writes.

More broadly, this is hardly peak gadget-buying season. As for most consumer electronics, the December (holiday) quarter will likely be Apple’s largest for watch sales. Last year, Apple generated almost 40% of its overall sales during the December quarter, versus almost 20% during the June quarter.

Of course

the Fitbit could be outselling the Apple Watch right now.

Fitbit’s devices are significantly less expensive than Apple’s and have wider distribution. Fitbit booked $68 in revenue last year for each of the 10.9 million devices it sold. The Apple Watch starts at $350. Cheap compact disc players surely outsold the iPod for years.

Many people do want to buy the Apple Watch. In one recent survey, commissioned by RBC Capital Markets, 58% of respondents said they planned to buy a fitness tracker, smartwatch, or both over the next 12 months. Of those, 21% said they planned to buy an Apple Watch, versus 42% for Fitbit. (Most said their budget was under $200.) In another survey of would-be wearable-device buyers, conducted by Morgan Stanley, 34% of respondents intended to purchase an Apple Watch, versus 15% for Fitbit.

Clearly, both Apple and Fitbit will survive in the near term.

Let’s not kid ourselves: This first Apple Watch is not a must-buy device.

We like ours a lot, but we also know people who have abandoned theirs or sold them. It’s just not something everyone needs. But neither was the first iPod, iPhone, or iPad. Of the 726 million iPhones Apple had shipped through March, only 0.2% were shipped in the first three months. (Recall that Apple even cut iPhone prices by $200 a couple months after their mid-2007 debut.) And of the 271 million iPads shipped through March, only 1% were shipped in the launch quarter. Even if the Watch is on its way to becoming a mega-hit, we probably wouldn’t know by now.

Over time, the Apple Watch platform will either mature into something more people want or need, or it won’t. (The idea of a wrist computer commanding a personal cloud seems too potentially promising for Apple to ignore.) Recall that it took several years for category-defining iPhone apps like Instagram and Uber to be invented. Note how much hardware design—thickness, battery efficiency, etc.—and pricing has changed over the years.

Today, the Apple Watch is a relatively expensive toy—with some early utility—for curious people. It is silly to call it a massive success yet, but it is equally foolish to call it a flop. It is simply too early, and not enough is known.