The biggest near-term catalyst for Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) stock is the Apple Watch, which could launch as early as March.
Sales forecasts for the smartwatch run as high as 60 million units (Katy Huberty, Morgan Stanley) within the first year, which would equal at least $21 billion in revenue at a base price of $350. Pricier versions of the watch and premium watch straps could all substantially increase that figure. That would be great news for Apple, which relied on the iPhone and iPad for 56% and 13% of its topline, respectively, during the last reported quarter.
However, interest in the device remains muted. Piper Jaffray surveys showed the percentage of respondents who planned to buy an Apple Watch slipped from 10% in September 2013 to 7% in December 2014. UBS reported that just 10% of respondents in a recent survey were "very likely" to buy an Apple Watch. Those are not game-changing numbers for the most highly anticipated wearable device to date.
In several ways, Apple Watch can be compared to Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) Glass. The former shrinks smartphone tech down for the wrist, while the latter does it for the face. Apple Watch is certainly less intrusive than Glass, but it follows a similar path of leapfrogging over consumer habits in a bid to reshape consumer behavior. If Apple Watch flops, as Glass did recently, what would be the overall impact?
Less enthusiasm for wearables
Wearable market forecasts will likely have to be readjusted if the Apple Watch fails. Research firm Canalys expects annual shipments of smartwatches to rise from 8 million units in 2014 to 23 million this year. That's a fairly conservative estimate that doesn't need Apple to sell 60 million units.
But looking further ahead, Canalys expects smartwatch sales to hit 45 million units by 2017. Business Insider forecasts sales of nearly 92 million units in 2018. Research firm ON World tops them all by claiming that 330 million units will be shipped by 2018. That whopping figure basically assumes that about a fifth of all worldwide smartphone users in 2018 (1.7 billion according to IDC) will purchase a smartwatch in the next few years.
However, a recent NPD survey found that a mere 2% of respondents currently own a smartwatch. Therefore, if Apple Watch fails, the market will have to reconsider whether 10% to 20% of smartphone owners is a realistic goal for wearables.
Not the end of Apple
If Apple Watch flops, the financial impact won't be severe. Hitting the max forecast of 60 million units would generate sales equivalent to just 10% of the company's projected revenue of $213 billion for fiscal 2015, but strong iPhone sales could easily offset an underwhelming Apple Watch launch.
According to Counterpoint Research, global iPhone sales rose 24% year-over-year in November. BMO Capital estimates Apple is on track to sell 189 million iPhones in 2015, compared to 169.2 million in 2014 and 150.3 million in 2013. That kind of growth means Apple investors won't need to worry about slowing iPhone demand anytime soon.
Therefore, Apple Watch should be considered a bonus, and not a pillar, for the company's performance this year.
Regaining the Midas touch
Apple Watch is CEO Tim Cook's first test of innovation without the late Steve Jobs, who oversaw the launches of the iPod, iPhone, and iPad. Since Jobs' death in 2011, Apple has refreshed those core products instead of launching new ones.
Today's smartwatch market looks much like the MP3, smartphone, and tablet markets before Apple launched its game-changing devices. They were fragmented among manufacturers that produced innovative but flawed devices. MP3 players had limited storage, smartphones had clumsy interfaces, and Windows tablets weren't optimized for touchscreens. Today's smartwatches similarly suffer from limited battery life, unreliable health-tracking features, and a lack of aesthetic appeal.
Apple Watch needs to address those issues. Success will prove the company still has its Midas touch, while failure might weaken consumer and investor confidence in the company.
As a longtime Apple investor, I hope Apple Watch is a hit. However, there's no guarantee it will be, despite bullish market forecasts, and I think investors should be prepared for what could happen if it falls short of expectations.
I certainly won't sell my Apple stock if the Apple Watch flops. iPhone and Mac sales remain healthy, and Apple has plenty of other services -- such as HealthKit, HomeKit, Apple Pay, and Beats -- that could generate fresh revenue. But looking further ahead, I would be concerned about Apple falling back into its funk in the 1980s and 1990s without Jobs, when it launched plenty of products but nobody wanted them.