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The billion-dollar watch

It's a good start, but where will it wind up?

The Apple Watch, despite early reviews that ranged from cautiously optimistic to middling, has begun its first quarter as a billion-dollar business. That revenue number wasn't stated exactly, but Apple CFO Luca Maestri told the Associated Press that revenue was "well over" the $952 million jump in the "other" category into which Apple lumps the watch. On the earnings call, CEO Tim Cook repeated the point that revenue on products like the iPod and accessories fell, so the watch accounted for more than it seems. Guessing at precise unit sales is virtually impossible, given the wide range of prices.

Whether it's a billion or $1.4 billion or whatever, it's possible to niggle with the exact number. And we'll be niggling well into the future, Apple won’t disclose those numbers because it doesn’t want its competitors to know them. (A cynic might even posit that the most valuable thing about the iPod for Apple right now is that it occludes the watch's performance.) But niggle away — in the meantime Apple has birthed a billion-dollar business that is likely to grow in the short term. Strategy Analytics estimates that Apple has already captured 75 percent of smartwatch marketshare.

The watch has momentum

Though it may seem surprising, the Watch has momentum. That was Cook's other message during the earnings call. Sales are growing, not shrinking, over time — June was actually the best month for Apple Watch sales, according to Cook. He said that his supply chain only managed to catch up to demand in the last few days and that he had big expansion plans for retail leading into the holidays. "We're convinced that the watch is going to be one of the top gifts of the holiday season," Cook said.

Apple is also going to release watchOS 2 with native apps, which hopefully will address the speed complaints many of us have, and it may get some people who have been waiting on the sidelines to jump. It's also going to tweak its in-store experience, which could juice sales even more. If you'd asked me a week ago what direction Watch sales were going, I would have said down over time. Apple has basically said flat-out that's wrong.

So we know that the Watch is a billion-dollar business for now, and it seems like a safe bet that it's going to grow — at least through the holidays. What we don't know is whether or not it's going to follow the same path as Apple's other products — starting small but then rapidly growing into the kind of business that other companies can only dream of. Apple itself certainly wants you to think that: it said explicitly that the watch outsold the first quarters of both the original iPhone and the original iPad. That's some very bold positioning — an implicit promise that it will change the game in the same way those products did.

But it's still too early to make that assumption. We don't know what the ceiling is yet — and assuming that the sky’s the limit is not a good idea. The iPad taught us that: its initial wild growth leveled off over time, and it turned out to be nowhere near the size of the iPhone business. The issue is one of context: should we have thought of the iPad as being more like the iPhone in terms of potential or more like the Mac? In the early days, we didn't know. But now that we've had several years, the trend line is clearer.

If you want to guess at the trend line for the Watch, you need to think about what kind of product it is. We just don't know yet. We've never seen a wearable reach this level of success. Anybody who will tell you what the long-term outlook is going to be is taking a shot in the dark. Just think of the variables: future development, shrinking technology, consumer attitudes toward wearables, and, most of all, fashion.

What we can say is this: the Apple Watch has outperformed what the skeptics expected, but not so much so that we have a guaranteed, decade-long hit on our wrists. What's crazy is simply Apple's monumental scale. Even if you are of the opinion that the first quarter of Apple Watch sales amounts to a "meh," a "meh" in Apple World is still bigger than Microsoft's entire Surface business — which grew significantly last quarter and is essentially a mature business at this point.

I use the Apple Watch — I like it, but I also liked the Pebble and Android Wear. I am the kind of consumer who takes a flyer on new technologies just because they're interesting. Presumably some large portion of the people who bought it are in a similar camp. But I think the Watch still has serious issues, enough that I wouldn't recommend it to most consumers (I wouldn't recommend any smartwatch to most consumers yet). It's just too expensive for the value that it provides right now. I am very far from convinced that it's anywhere near as essential as a smartphone, to say nothing of not being as useful as a tablet or a computer.

But that value-to-utility ratio is just one more variable that we'll see change over time. Even if it doesn't get better, we probably won't know for a while where the true ceiling for the Apple Watch business is. To mix metaphors: through the strength of marketing, design, and building a pretty good first take at a product, Apple has paved a runway for the Apple Watch that's at least a year long. Now it has to hit the throttle and see if it can take off.

Verge Video: The Apple Watch review