…Time will tell…

As we begin 2015 — the year Apple has promised to release the Apple Watch it showed last September — there’s a somewhat comical debate underway in the media: how big of a success will the Watch actually be?

Although I’m not personally planning to buy an Apple Watch, three decades of using Apple products and over a decade of reviewing them have taught me that Apple now has only three types of launches: gigantic hits, hits, and near-hits. And those phrases are all relative.

Two of Apple’s “least popular” product families, the Apple TV and iPod, have sold in quantities most companies would kill for. These are devices that haven’t been meaningfully updated in several years, and many people have called the iPod “dead,” despite sales of 14 million units in the past year. Even as a semi-successful “hobby,” the Apple TV reached around 10 million customers in the last year, a larger group of users than the typical company can achieve in a whole lineup.

So it’s hard to call any modern Apple product a “flop,” but it’s also true that a few of its major releases — most notably the Apple TV — were particularly close to being misses in their first generations, requiring major price and/or feature changes before succeeding in the next generation. Where will the Apple Watch fit in Apple’s history? Today alone, we’ve seen predictions ranging from “2015 is the year of the Apple Watch” and “could change the way people live” to a somber prediction that it won’t be “the homerun product that iPod, iPhone, and iPad have been.” Similar opinions have been circulating for months.

After reading both dire and overenthusiastic predictions, as well as measuring demand several months out from the release, my belief is somewhere in the middle: the Apple Watch will do better in its first year than the first-generation Apple TV, falling somewhere between the first-generation iPhone (6.1 million units, below Apple’s target of 10 million) and the original iPad (14.8 million units, wildly surpassing most estimates). The iPhone is huge now, but it wasn’t a “gigantic hit” in its first year, while the iPad roared out of the gate and has stayed pretty strong since then. Below, I’ll explain why I think the Apple Watch will wind up between them.

Why The Apple Watch Will Succeed

It Looks Good Enough To Win Fans – Maybe Even New Ones. From what I’ve gathered — and judging from many of the new hires Apple has made to ensure its success — the Apple Watch’s fashion appeal is critical to winning a new base of customers. Wearables and fashion accessories need not appeal to everyone in order to be popular; there is no single hat, for instance, that every person would choose to wear. Creating a universally wow-inducing hat or watch is a lot harder than making a universally wow-inducing phone, which the original iPhone notably did.

Rather, a wearable needs to attract enough wearers to reach a critical mass, and convince them that they won’t look ridiculous in public. That’s the bar the Apple Watch has certainly hurdled. Between the basic aluminum version, the fancier stainless versions, and the luxe gold versions, Apple has created enough options to appeal to several different groups — primarily athletes, wealthy men, and wealthy women – with the sizes and materials necessary to win critical masses in each. You don’t need to like every version of the Apple Watch, just one, and if you’re willing to pay for it, Apple makes a sale. By going after the readers of Vogue and reaching out to customers at Parisian fashion boutiques, Apple isn’t limiting itself to the people who typically fill Apple Stores, and has certainly won some of them over.

It Adds Conveniences To Your Wrist. The second biggest selling point of the Apple Watch is what it will actually do. No one would dispute that Apple could easily sell millions of $99 Jony Ive-designed watches that did little more than tell the time and play music. But to justify a $349 starting price, the Watch needs to do more. Fans of the Apple Watch point to a handful of conveniences the device will add to the iPhone it connects to: “logging” (biometric data), “controlling” (other devices), “authenticating” (payments and other devices), “alerting” (with alarms) and “communicating” (via messages and voice), each providing simple, wrist-based access to functions previously stored less conveniently in a pocket.

Are these features compelling? That’s far more a matter of personal preference than the naysayers would have you believe. Just remember, Apple doesn’t need to win anywhere close of a majority of the entire watch market’s customers in order for the Apple Watch to be a “success.” And developers are seemingly beyond excited to start releasing new apps that expand its already-announced capabilities.

Millions Of People Will Certainly Buy It, No Matter What. The Apple Watch can’t “fail” in an absolute sense of that word because of Apple’s large, loyal user base. History has repeatedly demonstrated that even if Apple only launches a product in a handful of countries, it can count on somewhere between 1 and 2 million people to purchase any major, properly-marketed new product on the first day of availability without having used it — and quite possibly to wait in line for it overnight. Moreover, its products tend to be more successful with every passing generation, as it continually improves features, designs, and pricing to hit the right mixes to win new customers.

When the original Apple TV launched eight years ago, at a not-quite-right $299 price point and with some serious first-generation problems, Apple was able to sell around a million units in the first year. That was at the height of the iPod’s popularity and at a point when iTunes video downloading was relatively new. Since then, the iPhone and iPad have eclipsed the iPod in popularity, creating an even bigger base of potential Apple Watch customers. A survey claims that 5% of iPhone users are either “very” or “extremely” likely to buy the Watch; even half of that would still be in the double-digit millions. (Over 500 million iPhones have been sold, but the exact number of current users is unclear.) Depending on the demand it forecasts in the first few countries, Apple can quickly expand the launch or tweak pricing to sell whatever it decides to make.

Why The Apple Watch Won’t Be A Gigantic Hit (At First)

Having made the case for the Apple Watch above, I note again that I’m personally not interested in owning one — yet. I’ve purchased every iPod, Apple TV, iPhone, and iPad ever made except for the iPad mini 3, and am on record as supporting both the iPhone and the iPad before either one was formally announced. But the Apple Watch just doesn’t do it for me. I’d describe myself as waiting for a more compelling second- or third-generation model.

I’ve been following the wearables market closely for years, read all of Apple’s marketing materials, and really loved the Watch’s first video trailer. I’ve re-watched the trailer just to listen to the music, and would buy the song if I could. It’s a cool piece of marketing that elegantly introduces an exciting new product. The problem is that the product doesn’t yet fit a need that I have, at least in a way that suits my tastes. And many surveys have suggested that I’m part of a relatively large majority, so I’m far from the only person who feels that way.

Battery Life Will Be A Dealbreaker For Many People. For me, the single biggest problem is Apple Watch’s battery life. Apple has said that the Watch will need to be charged every night, and that’s just not something I want to worry about for something I rely upon to keep time. I don’t want to think about whether my watch battery will be dead when I step off a plane, or whether it will stop working if I’m out late at night, or whether there will be an issue using it in the morning if I fall asleep with my watch on my wrist. If the Watch could run for a week between charges, I could live with it. One day of run time is just a non-starter for me.

There’s No Killer Feature (Yet). Next up is the core functionality. I understand what the Apple Watch can do, but none of the features are either independently or collectively compelling enough to justify an expensive purchase. Biometric tracking, light communication, controlling other devices – I really don’t know that I need something other than my iPhone to do these things. Some of them will be so limited using the Watch that I’d be better off just using the iPhone, anyway. If there’s a killer app for the Apple Watch, it has yet to be announced.

Most People Appear Disinterested (For Now). And if you believe the surveys, most other people don’t think they need these features, either. An entire generation of teenagers and twenty-somethings have grown up without wearing watches; their parents have spent decades viewing watches mostly as fashion or simple functional accessories. Tim Cook acknowledged this at an AllThingsD conference: “none of them are going to convince a kid that hasn’t worn glasses or a band to wear one. … There are a lot of problems to solve in this space.” Competing smartwatches — even more attractive ones released late last year for $100 less than the Apple Watch — haven’t really caught on with mainstream users. It’s going to take time and effort to reverse these trends.

The Hardware/Software Are Close, But Not Quite Right. I’m also not totally thrilled about the look of the first-generation software or hardware, which is really important for something I’d wear all day. While I love a couple of the bands Apple chose — the Milanese and Link options — the actual watch looks a little too large and not quite the right shape for my wrist; I found the sixth-generation iPod nano too big to wear every day as a watch, and the Apple Watch is in the same ballpark.

On more picky notes, the new San Francisco font is too Android-like for my taste, and unlike other of the Watch’s displays, apparently non-customizable. Kinks in implementation also need to be worked out: for instance, early reports suggest that you’ll need to enter a PIN code to re-activate Apple Pay on the Watch every time you take it off your wrist. There are a lot of little things like this that need extra polish, and my guess is that Apple is not going to change them for a while.

We Still Don’t Know All The Prices, And They Won’t Be Cheap. This one’s simple: the Apple Watch “starts at $349,” but no one knows yet how much the stainless steel and gold versions will cost. They could be merely “too high,” as the plastic-banded entry-level model is, or “completely laughable,” which is more of a risk for the gold version – enough that people are already contemplating whether they’ll need to be melted down, resold, or traded in to Apple when the second-generation Apple Watch comes out. The fact that people are already discussing disposal prospects for a product they don’t yet own isn’t a great sign.

So Where Does That Leave Us?

Apple was under a lot of pressure to announce a new product category in 2014, and the Apple Watch’s early announcement demonstrated that the company’s designers and engineers had indeed been working hard on something new. Enough people responded positively to the announcement that Apple won’t have trouble selling a million or two units at launch, but it’s unclear whether it will have an iPhone-like first year — falling short of initial targets even with a price drop — or do stronger numbers just because the Apple user base is so much larger and more global now. My personal feeling is that there were more compelling day one uses and fewer functional roadblocks for the iPhone and the iPad, but a lot could change before the Apple Watch is released.

I’m going to be glad to sit this particular launch out. But I’ll definitely be interested in the second- or third-generation model if the battery life and pricing improve. What about you?

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