What if the Apple Watch really is a flop?

The good, the bad, and the immaterial outcomes if Apple's heavily hyped smartwatch is selling as poorly as recent reports suggest.

Apple Watch sales decline flop
Credit: Apple

Last week saw the emergence of reports from Slice Intelligence that sales of the vaunted Apple Watch were down 90% from its launch week, and many commentators rushed to call the device a flop. Like many other people, I don't fully trust the numbers or the analysis behind the stories, but the kerfuffle raises an interesting question – what if the Apple Watch is a flop?

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If that's actually true, what would it mean for the future of wearable computing devices? How important would it be for Apple? What effect would it have on makers of other smartwatches and wearable computing devices?

We can divide the answers to those questions into three categories: the good, the bad, and the immaterial. Cue the Ennio Morricone soundtrack and let's dive in…

The Good

The failure of the Apple Watch to grab the hearts, minds, and credit cards of the gadget-buying public can be viewed as a good thing for wearable technology in general. Just like the failure of Google Glass, a less-than-successful Apple Watch would make it even clearer that people won't accept too-expensive yet not-fully-thought-out wearable devices. It could spur Apple to do some soul searching and better clarify the benefits and use cases of its smartwatches, not to mention to create a better upgrade path.

See also: 7 troubling similarities between the Apple Watch and Google Glass

While I remain bullish on wearable computing, I'm just not satisfied with any wearable device I've seen so far. There's an opportunity for fundamental innovation here that no one has yet managed to grasp. I'd be kind of disappointed if everyone says, "Yup, the Apple Watch is it. All we need to do now is improve that and we've got this whole wearable thing nailed."

I, for one, don't want to see a world where every smartwatch looks and functions pretty much the same—and any Apple stumbles here could create more runway for wearable makers like Fitbit, Pebble, and Jawbone, and not to mention traditional watch makers—to create credible alternatives and define other possibilities of what people really want and need in terms of wearable smart devices. Ever since the iPhone broke out, just about every other smartphone has been defined in relation to that device's enormous success. I don't think it would be a bad thing to leave the smartwatch field open for widespread innovation a little longer.

The Bad

On the other hand, coming on the heels of the Google Glass debacle, developers and investors could decide that it's too early to pour big bucks into developing wearable computing products. Some people may decide that if Apple and Google can't do it, maybe they shouldn't even try, at least not until something changes. That would be a shame, but I don't think it's going to happen.

See also: 2014: The year smartwatches died

Makers of fitness trackers, like Fitbit, have shown that there is money to be made in wearable devices, and you don't have to be super smart to see that more can be done in this field. The tricky part is figuring out exactly what should be done, and then making this new thing happen in a cost-effective, easy-to-understand-and-use way.

As for millions of people who shelled out big bucks for what they hoped would be a category-defining product: tough noogies. You'll be fine, and hopefully you'll be first in line for the next high-profile attempt at making wearable computing mainstream. I won't even make fun of you for buying into the hype, unless you're one of the fewer than 2,000 people who ponied up more than $1,000 for the Edition version of the Apple Watch. Sorry, but you deserve to be mocked.

The Immaterial

As for an Apple Watch flop's effect on Apple overall, don't worry about it either way. Apple makes most of its money on the iPhone, and the Apple Watch is no more than a pimple on one of the fattest balance sheets the corporate world has ever seen. Apple has so much money, it has all the time in the world to fix the Apple Watch and make it the next huge profit driver for the company. Or, if not, to come up with something else.

Admittedly, it may not seem that way inside Apple. While the numbers aren't big enough to really affect the company's bottom line, Tim Cook and other top execs have a lot of prestige on the line, and they'll no doubt feel the sting of an Apple Watch flop. Somehow, though, I think most of them will be just fine.

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