Daily Report: Sales of Apple Watch Suggest a Familiar Path to Success

By The New York Times

Asking if the Apple Watch will become a hit or a flop is a bit like asking if my 2-year-old daughter is destined to go to Yale or to jail. Interested parties can speculate on the basis of thin evidence — she learned to walk pretty early, though on the other hand, she still thinks cats say “bow wow” — but youth is inherently unpredictable, and anyone venturing a long-term forecast based on short-term performance runs the risk of looking quite silly.

Technology pundits tend to be a rash bunch, though, so there has been no shortage of prognostication about the Apple Watch, a device that went on sale three months ago. Because reviews (including mine) were mixed and the device hasn’t proved to be culturally revolutionary, some are declaring the watch dead on arrival.

Apple has declined to provide sales figures for the watch, its newest product. In its earnings report for the fiscal third quarter, released on Tuesday — the first to include sales of the Apple Watch — the company was cagey about sales, with Timothy D. Cook, the chief executive, saying the device had “a great start.”

 Timothy D. Cook announced the Apple Watch in September at an event in California. Credit Stephen Lam/Reuters

Analysts’ estimates vary wildly, with many originally predicting that Apple sold three million to five million watches from April to the end of June. After studying Apple’s opaque earnings report, several analysts revised their estimates down to about 1.5 million to three million watches. Even at the lower end, that’s the opposite of instant death: Luca Maestri, Apple’s chief financial officer, pointedly said the watch sold more in its first nine weeks on the market than either the iPhone or the iPad did in that same period.

Yet the future of the Apple Watch will not be determined by first-quarter sales. Apple’s product debuts tend to follow a well-worn script: A first-generation device is always criticized as overpriced and a bit lacking in utility and is often vulnerable to the charge that it is a solution in search of a problem. Then, over a few years, Apple and its customers figure out the best uses for the gadget, and the company methodically improves design and functionality to meet those needs. It also tends to lower its prices. Correspondingly, sales explode.

Given this history, the question to ask about the Apple Watch isn’t how well it has sold so far, but how well Apple is following that script. Is it moving quickly to address the early criticism of the watch and to expand access to and functionality of the device?

The answer here is far more definitive than the murky sales figures: So far, Apple is following exactly the same playbook for the watch that it did for the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad. If it sticks to that pattern — trying to add new capabilities to the device while perhaps lowering prices and expanding distribution — the future of the Apple Watch could be bright. The only catch is that determining success will take months, if not years. Waiting may be too much to ask of itchy tech observers, especially because Mr. Cook’s legacy is riding on his ability to introduce a new product category to the world’s tech-obsessed masses. But waiting may be the only option.

Of the data we have on the watch so far, much of it leans positive. Owners of Apple Watches, for one, seem to like them. Creative Strategies and Wristly, two research firms, recently conducted a study of more than 800 Apple Watch owners. About 97 percent reported being either very or somewhat satisfied with the device. That level is better than corresponding levels of satisfaction for the original iPhone and iPad, both of which scored in the low 90s in early customer-sentiment studies.

Ben Bajarin, an analyst at Creative Strategies, said the study also revealed a point of perhaps deeper importance. There is a split, the research found, between people who describe themselves as tech-obsessed — people who work in the industry or build apps for a living — and those outside the tech world, also known as normal people. Early adopters were pickier about the watch’s shortcomings, the study found. Only 43 percent of app developers described themselves as “very satisfied” with the watch, compared with 73 percent of nontech users who were delighted by the device.

Fortunately for Apple, according to the study, a slim majority of Apple Watch owners did not describe themselves as techies — a finding that surprised Mr. Bajarin.

 Makoto Saito and Kazumi Oda in Tokyo on April 24, when the device went on sale. Some have called it a flop, but the watch sold more in its first nine weeks than the iPhone or iPad did in the same period. Credit Franck Robichon/European Pressphoto Agency

“My assumption was that a high proportion of people who bought the Apple Watch early were probably going to be people who are investors or they’re super into gadgets,” he said. “We certainly have those people in the survey, but we also have people from Milwaukee who are insurance agents and are not early adopters.”

He added that the appeal for those outside tech bodes well for the watch. “There are clearly way more mainstream users in Apple’s ecosystem than there are early adopters, so it’s good that the watch is already not confusing for people who aren’t your bleeding-edge techies,” he said.

The split between the tech elite and mainstream users echoes a story that has been repeated throughout Apple’s history. The iPod, the iPhone and the iPad all confounded tech insiders, who loudly criticized faults with the devices that they claimed would be fatal — and that, it turned out, didn’t much matter to ordinary people, or to Apple’s long-term success. The first iPod, which sold for $399, was called too expensive, and it worked only with Macs. The iPhone didn’t have a copy-and-paste function, it ran only the slow Edge network and it didn’t have a removable battery. Also, it couldn’t run third-party apps. The iPad didn’t load websites with Flash animation, and it didn’t have a camera.

A few of these were genuine shortcomings, and Apple eventually addressed them. The company created a Windows version of the iPod, added an app store to the iPhone and put a camera on the iPad. But in many instances it ignored the techies: Apple never added Flash to iOS, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in tech these days who thinks that was a bad idea.

The point here isn’t that the tech critics are always wrong. Instead, the pattern suggests the early criticism isn’t necessarily the best long-term guide. It takes time to figure out which shortcomings in a new product are significant and which are merely symptoms of an outmoded way of looking at technology.

With the Apple Watch, the company is clearly studying these patterns now, and it has already shown off some coming changes. There have been two main criticisms of the watch thus far: It’s too slow, and it’s not necessary — it doesn’t do all that much you can’t do on your phone. A more pernicious problem is that developers have not yet hit on killer ideas for the watch, and some of the world’s largest tech companies are moving cautiously to create apps for it.

Apple is fixing these problems faster than it addressed major shortcomings with other first-generation products. At its developer conference in June, the company unveiled an update to the watch’s operating system that Apple said would greatly improve its speed. The new operating system, appearing later this year, will also let developers use more of the sensors and other technologies on the watch, allowing for more powerful apps.

These advances might sound small, but in tech, incremental improvements can drive big changes. Jan Dawson, an independent tech analyst, told me the new operating system would “be a big part of generating more compelling-use cases for the watch for mainstream users, because that’s when we’ll really start to see a flood of third-party apps that make sense.”

What’s more, bit-by-bit improvements are part of Apple’s modus operandi. We saw it with the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad. After creating something new, the company continually adds small new features over time. Over a few years, this turns an initial burst of interest about Apple’s newest thing into a long-term tech institution that just about everyone can use and enjoy. That’s happening with the watch, and the strategy just might work.

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