The wearables era at Apple began years ago. However, Wall Street and Silicon Valley are only now slowly starting to pay attention to what Apple has been building. Apple is the undisputed leader in wearables, and they are pulling away from the competition. Given how Apple’s wearables strength continues to be underestimated, the company deserves more credit for what it has achieved and where it is headed.
A takeaway from Apple’s recent 3Q19 earnings was that we are witnessing the wearables era continue to unfold at Apple. Segmenting Apple’s quarterly revenue growth into product categories is one way of highlighting wearables momentum. Both an accurate financial model and close following of Apple clues over the past four years are required to accurately estimate Apple Watch and AirPods unit sales and average selling prices (ASPs). Therefore, this exercise has not been practiced by many.
The preceding totals represent the change in revenue from 3Q18 to 3Q19.
Apple Revenue Growth Drivers (3Q19)
Services: $1.5 billion
Wearables: $1.2 billion
Home / Accessories: $0.6 billion
Mac: $0.6 billion
iPad: $0.4 billion
Note: These totals do not represent revenue totals but instead the change in revenue between 3Q18 and 3Q19.
The revelation from the preceding data is riveting. Wearables nearly exceeded Services in 3Q19 as Apple’s top revenue growth generator when looking at absolute dollars. Consensus was not expecting this to occur as Services was positioned as Apple’s growth engine. It is clear that consensus spent too much time on the Services highway and ended up missing the exit for wearables.
In taking a closer look at wearables revenue growth, it becomes evident that Apple is benefiting from both higher ASPs for Apple Watch and AirPods as well as continued strong unit sales growth. For AirPods, unit sales growth is nothing short of spectacular at 80%.
Speaking of unit sales, one out of five gadgets that Apple sells is now a wearables device. Exhibit 1 highlights the growing share that wearables represent when looking at overall Apple device unit sales.
Exhibit 1: Wearables Share of Apple Device Unit Sales
Exhibit 2 depicts wearables’ growing share of gadget sales relative to Apple’s other product categories. Apple is currently selling approximately 70M wearable devices per year. This includes 30 million Apple Watches and more than 30 million AirPods.
Exhibit 2: Apple Gadget Unit Sales
On a revenue basis, Apple’s wearables business is now at a $16 billion annual run rate growing at 55% to 60%. At the current pace, wearables will surpass both the iPad and Mac near the end of 2020 to become the third largest product category behind iPhone and Services when looking at revenue.
The Wearables Train
One way of thinking about Apple’s wearables business is that it’s a train gaining momentum. Competitors face declining odds of being able to stop the train.
The Apple wearables train is boosted by three items that no other company has the luxury of utilizing or leveraging:
A massive installed base of iPhone users (925M globally).
Core competencies and a company culture built on making technology more personal, intuitive, and easy to use.
A thriving platform of multiple wearables products.
Apple is leveraging its ecosystem of users and devices to give its wearables business an ideal launching pad for success. While there are handful of companies with more than a billion users, no other company has an ecosystem of a billion users and nearly 1.5 billion devices (nearly 90% of which are running the latest software). The lack of a self-sustaining ecosystem is one of the primary factors driving Fitbit’s gradual fade into irrelevancy. This limitation manifests itself in new products like the Fitbit Versa smartwatch failing to catch the needed traction.
Design, or the lack thereof, is proving to be another high barrier for many companies to get over in terms of wearables. Silicon Valley continues to focus too much on technology and not enough on design, or how we actually use technology. Google’s ineptitude when it comes to wearables is partially due to the company not having a clue as to how to get people to wear wearable devices. Management thought consumers would want to wear Pixel earbuds because the devices had real-time translation. In reality, consumers don’t want to be seen in public wearing wireless headphones that don’t reflect aspiration and coolness. A keen understanding of how to play in the luxury and fashion realms while simultaneously appealing to the mass market is tricky.
Flying Under the Radar
In assessing why Apple’s wearables business has received so little attention to date, one doesn’t have to look much further than the iPhone. Preoccupation with trying to find a singular product capable of replacing iPhone made it difficult for many to see how a platform of wearable devices is the answer for what can eventually serve as a viable iPhone alternative.
A cellular Apple Watch paired with AirPods is already able to handle a number of tasks currently given to the iPhone. Add a pair of smart glasses to the mix, and mobile devices like the iPhone and iPad stand to lose even more use cases.
It doesn’t help that new Apple products are also graded on a curve next to iPhone. If a new product is unable to move Apple’s financial meter out of the gate, the product is looked at as a flop, toy, or mere iPhone accessory.
For competitors, the bad news is that there is evidence that Apple is still applying some breaks to its wearables train. In some ways, Apple is holding things back. An iPhone is still required to set up an Apple Watch. A truly independent Apple Watch that doesn’t require an iPhone would grow the device’s addressable market by three times overnight.
In addition, Apple currently only offers wearables devices for two pieces of real estate on the body: our wrists and ears. A compelling argument can be made that the most prized piece of wearables real estate, our eyes, remains untapped.
We are witnessing wearables usher in a paradigm shift when it comes to how we use and interact with technology. Apple deserves more credit for not only choosing to ride the wearables wave, but also playing a crucial role in getting wearables off the ground.
Apple is well on its way to having Apple Watch and AirPods installed bases of 100M people each. The company is more than half way there with Apple Watch and is quickly approaching the same level with AirPods despite the product being sold for half the time.
Apple also finds itself in the midst of a major investment phase to expand its wearables platform. There is an opportunity to bring more utility, in addition to clearer vision, to the eyes in the form of smart glasses. Such a product would be a precursor to a pair of AR glasses.
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