The time has come for Apple and its chief executive Tim Cook to overcome its fears of announcing Apple Watch sales figures.
On Monday, research firm IDC released its latest report on the health of the wearables market. While in general, the broader wearables market performed relatively well in the third quarter on 23 million shipments worldwide, that was largely ignored. Instead, the focus was on Apple and its Apple Watch, which IDC said saw sales decline by 71% year over year. Apple Watch shipments hovered at just 1.1 million units in the third quarter, compared to 3.9 million in the same period last year.
In an uncharacteristic move, Apple quickly responded to the report. Speaking to Reuters in an emailed statement published on Tuesday, Apple CEO Tim Cook said Apple Watch is quite popular and is on pace to be one of the most desired gifts this holiday season.
“Sales growth is off the charts,” he told Reuters. “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. And as we expected, we’re on track for the best quarter ever for Apple Watch.”
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Cook’s comments have quickly sparked a debate. Those in support of Apple say IDC’s data is based on estimates and could be grossly miscalculated. They also point to IDC’s acknowledgment that its shipment figures were down in part because of Apple’s release of its Apple Watch Series 2 towards the end of the quarter, not allowing the company to enjoy the full benefit of the new smartwatch’s availability during the third quarter. IDC added, however, that the major reasons for the Apple Watch’s trouble “were an aging lineup and an unintuitive user interface.”
Apple detractors have pointed to IDC’s second point for proof that the Apple Watch is falling short of expectations. Some have also used the data to support their arguments that Apple Watch is a “failure.”
In reality, it’s hard to know the truth. IDC doesn’t have a line on actual Apple Watch sales from Apple’s own retail stores and gets its information from “great sources in the supply chain as well as analysts around the world who gather local information,” according to analyst Jitesh Ubrani, who spoke to Fortune. So there is some guesswork that goes into its data. It’s also true that Tim Cook would be in the best position to know how well Apple Watch is selling.
The trouble, though, is Cook’s comments offer no context. He didn’t share actual sales figures and has only said that Apple Watch has enjoyed a stellar start to the holiday shopping season.
If Apple wants the world to believe Apple Watch is successful—something it apparently does given Cook’s swift response to IDC—it must release Apple Watch sales numbers.
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Since its release in 2015, Apple Watch has been a conundrum for investors, market watchers, and analysts. Apple Watch is lumped into the company’s “Other Products” category with Apple TV, Beats products, and others. Apple has declined to provide sales figures each quarter under the dubious pretense that sharing such information could help its competitors.
Each quarter, Cook touts the Apple Watch’s success in general terms, leaving everyone else wondering just how much the device is contributing to Apple’s revenue and profits.
While Apple has been able to justify its move in the past, increasing scrutiny on softness in the smartwatch market and on Apple Watch sales, in general, might call into question Cook’s strategy. IDC is firmly standing by its findings and Ubrani was quick to note to Fortune that Cook didn’t reject IDC’s report. There is reason to believe, then, that Apple Watch’s third quarter was as bad as IDC says.
Of course, Apple might disagree and follow up with some information about the third quarter. But absent actual sales figures, it’s impossible to know for sure what happened. And we’ll all be left to speculate on the smartwatch’s performance based solely on third-party information.
If Apple truly wants this Apple Watch mess to go away—and Cook’s comments to Reuters suggests it does—it needs to release Apple Watch sales figures. It’s the only way to put the debate to rest.