Tim Cook pushes back on Apple Watch sales estimate

An IDC report claims Apple Watch sales were down 71 percent in the 3rd quarter. But is that really the whole story?

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
The new Apple Watch models are displayed inside an Apple Inc. store in Los Angeles, Sept. 16.

Despite a damning analysis by the International Data Corporation (IDC), Tim Cook says the Apple Watch is “doing great.”

On Monday, an IDC report claimed Apple Watch sales were down 71 percent in the third quarter, while fitness trackers lead the wearables market. Apple’s chief executive conveyed a different narrative to Reuters, however, writing that the company’s smartwatch sales growth was actually “off the charts,” but declining to share actual sales figures.

“In fact, during the first week of holiday shopping, our sell-through of Apple Watch was greater than any week in the product’s history,” Cook wrote. “And as we expected, we’re on track for the best quarter ever for Apple Watch.”

In the original report, IDC analysts identified an “aging lineup and an unintuitive user interface” as the cause of Apple’s apparent sales decline.

“As user tastes change, so will their needs,” Ramon Llamas, research manager for IDC's wearables team, said in a statement. “That's the opportunity for smart wearables with multi-functionality and third-party applications, both for consumers and business users. To get there, we need to see more intuitive user interfaces, seamless user experiences, standalone connectivity, and applications that go beyond health and fitness and into personal and professional productivity.”

But that analysis may hinge upon uncertain data. Apple doesn’t share its sales data, notes ComputerWorld tech columnist Jonny Evans, so IDC’s estimates may or may not be entirely accurate. It’s also unclear whether the research firm included sales estimates from non-tech department stores, where the Apple Watch is commonly sold.

Even if IDC’s sales estimates are correct, the overall narrative may not be. The report combines high-end smartwatches and low-end fitness trackers in the same “wearables” sales category, which may skew overall market trends. Meanwhile, the third quarter was also a “bridging period” between the announcement of the Apple Watch Series 2 and the device’s actual release in September – in other words, consumers may have stopped buying the previous Apple Watch while waiting for the new model.

In a post for ComputerWorld, Mr. Evans wrote:

The headline should be “Apple Watch sales slow while customers wait for a new version,” not “Apple Watch sales fall 71 percent.”

The first is what happened, the second is also what happened but divorces the events from the time in which they took place, and what they represent.

In this way, reports of plummeting sales represent a trickier type of fake news story. The IDC report and Cook’s statement are competing realities, both presented as fact even though neither can be easily debunked. And until some actual figures are released, it will likely stay that way.

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