Understanding the Adoption Cycle for Apple Watch

It’s rare a new category is launched that lets us discuss some of the fundamentals of how technologies get adopted by the mass market. My firm, Creative Strategies, has some history on consumer adoption research as Tim Bajarin did landmark research on adoption cycles for IBM in the early days of the PC and for Apple in the early days of their desktop publishing and multimedia programs. When it comes to how technologies get adopted, there are a few fundamental observations to be made.

The Diffusion of Innovations

While in need of some modern updates, the “diffusion of innovations” still offers some clarity on the adopter groups.


This theory observes that there are customer segments who, by nature, are the earliest supporters and adopters of a new technology. Generally, these are the most enthusiastic consumers of a product, category, technology, or company. Some products never make it out of this section of the graph. Within smartwatches, products like the Pebble, Galaxy Gear, Moto 360 (Android Wear), these products are still in the innovators/techies phase and questions remain as to whether they get out of this phase or even past the early adopter phase.

Each of these phases is also relative to the total market size/customer base. It is notoriously hard to drive a new category of product from the techie/early adopter phase. It is noteworthy Apple has done this three times already.

What is central to this theory is how a company refines and polishes their product, using the adoption within their early customers, to create something mass market. When a new category is launched, mainstream consumers have very little frame of reference of what the product means or what benefits it creates. This is why the adoption cycle gets vetted by early customers and, if this group champions a product, whether out of the gate or over time with refinement, it is then when mass market consumers begin to catch on.

There has been a great deal of research, mostly looking at social influence in politics, which shows how influential one person can be to a group. In short, the research states that one person in a group of ten influence the other nine. Sometimes these are called the party planners or brand champions but, in this case, we will view them as the techies or early adopters in the bell chart above. Once this group deems a product worthy enough to champion it to their social circles, we begin to see innovations diffuse into the mainstream.

What has been interesting to dive into with this theory are areas where adoption cycles are increasing in the tech landscape. I could spend an entire series digging into this, but a main observation I’d make is how this increase of adoption of new technology may very well be isolated to Apple’s ecosystem and customer base.

This does not mean the diffusion of innovations framework is not useful but that the stages may develop much quicker for Apple than other companies.

What makes Apple Watch interesting in this light is how Apple Watch day one may appeal to more sections on the diffusion graph than most products. Which means that not just the techies/early adopters are going to go to Apple stores to check out the Apple Watch. I’m betting, and this is also largely thanks to Apple retail stores and experience, that even the pragmatists and the conservatives will check it out. This is where things get interesting.

From my demo time with the Apple Watch, I went into it looking for just a few key use cases I was interested in such as communication with digital touch and notifications. But through this demo I spent more time examining all the watch could do. I tried the health elements, the app/visual media elements, the watch faces, and host of other things. After seeing all it could do, and getting the whole demonstration, I walked away significantly more impressed with this product than I thought.

Generally, with adoption theory, we observe that simple value propositions drive adoption. This is because when something is new, it is easier for customers to grasp a few basic value propositions than a plethora. My sense is one or two key things may get consumers to check out the Apple Watch. Maybe it is the health elements. Maybe it is the communication elements. Maybe it is the apps, or perhaps something else. What gets them in the door may be a few simple things but once they see the whole demo, as I did, the true depth of value the Apple Watch offers becomes clear. Whatever gets them in the door, it will be the entire demo of ALL the Apple Watch can do that will close the deal.

As I rationalized my Apple Watch estimates, I used some of the adoption cycle philosophy for the early stage volumes. We know there is a big tech/early adopter customer base for Apple. The question remain about how/if it trickles down to the mainstream. There are mixed opinions from many public pundits and commentators. However, after getting the full demo, and knowing some of the simple features will get people in the door, I am bullish that the Apple Watch will go mainstream by 2017. Or possibly sooner.

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Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio

15 thoughts on “Understanding the Adoption Cycle for Apple Watch”

  1. I think it is important to look at the iPad. That product somehow went straight into the mainstream without spending much, if any, time in the innovator/early adopter phase. If the watch is anything like that — say, on account of an Apple halo effect — then it could hit the ground running. Applying the traditional diffusion curve to predict sales after year 1 could then easily lead to an overestimate because some “year 2 sales” were effectively sucked into the first year.

    1. Thanks for the comment Peter. I’m sort of looking at this a couple ways. Yes the iPad model is a useful one, but I believe the iPad went mainstream quickly thanks to the foundation laid by iPhone in terms of familiarity and uses. It was also something people could see from a friend or loved one and pick up and use and grasp the value.

      While the Watch will demo nicely, there are elements about it that are truly brand new, meaning people have no frame of reference, no previous foundation for, which I think elongates the adoption cycle slightly. I agree that the adoption cycles are speeding up and there are many reasons for this, but I think it takes a few generations to go try mainstream.

      Then, as I’ve been pointing out, we don’t expect the Watch to be a 1:1 conversion of all iPhone owners. No product of Apple’s whether Mac or iPad is 1:1 throughout the base. The question is how many iPhone owners the Watch appeals to. There is much to optimistic about and I am very excited about the potential of this product.

      1. I take your point.
        What surprises me is how controversial the watch is; some people swear it will never amount to anything, while others are ready to buy it sight unseen. To understand the second year sales potential, I will be looking out for any Apple Watch owner satisfaction surveys in a 3-4 months’ time.

        1. “What surprises me is how controversial the watch is; some people swear it will never amount to anything”

          The more successful Apple is, the more hysterical the response to anything Apple is doing. This reaction is predictable, the traditional tech industry doesn’t understand why Apple is succeeding, hence they freak out as Apple moves forward and succeeds anyway.

      2. Although I find applying the technology adoption lifecycle and diffusion theories to Apple Watch very interesting, I would also like a discussion on how fashion diffuses.

        Although mobile tech has moved with unprecedented speed, fashion moves very fast as well. Since there will undisputedly be a strong fashion element to Apple Watch, diffusion might happen much faster than tech is normally used to.

        Just like how white earbuds used to signify that you had an iPod, I’m wondering how Apple will promote the unique appearance of Apple Watch so that. like fashion, everybody around you will know.

    2. The iPad fortunately was able to immediately enter every retail channel that the iPod had grown over the previous decade – without the major drag the iPhone experienced due to the glacial pace of negotiating carrier contracts.

      The Watch I imagine will eventually have the widest retail footprint of any Apple product (being sold in the iPod/iPad channel, and also in carrier stores alongside the iPhone. and also in Jewellry stores (where you won’t find any other Apple product) – but it will take a while to build out the chain given the current reseller network is not the best equipped for selling wearables in many different assortments (the sales techniques will be very different – perhaps a lot of electronic retailers will only carry the sport models with the sport bands).

  2. I’m not sure the standard tech adoption curve applies, because the a) iWatch is mostly a fashion item and b) it’s only usable by the iPhone totting, less technical segment.

    1. That’s one way to refute everything Ben just experienced in his demo time. I guess Ben should’ve just led with the line that fashion is the one key thing to get iPhone-toters to check out the Apple Watch, and saved himself a thousand words.

      1. Whether you’re an iPhone-toter or non-iPhone-toter, a watch, smart or not, has to be stylish and fashionable if you want any chance if it selling and people and wearing them.

        1. Agree, but once a product has met the stylish and fashionable threshold, it’s all the other tech product capabilities that will apply — and thus the standard tech adoption curve does apply. For even smartphones have had to meet a stylish and fashionable threshold for the vast majority of users.

    2. So I shoud have been more specific in that apple has enough customers via their installed base, that the watch can diffuse just though their base and we will consider it to go mainstream.

      Also it does apply since Apples customer base contains every type of cusormter segment.

      But we can apply this to smart watches as a whole again, to which I have less confidence on the size of non apple smart watch market at this point.

    3. Obarthelwmy – calling the Apple Watch “iWafch” makes you sound incredibly misinformed, and detracts from anything else you write.

  3. Ben, what are your thoughts on the potential distribution limitations for the Watch, particular outside the US where Apple has little or no Apple stores? Selling the Watch through traditional Apple resellers (electronic retailers) doesn’t seem like the best sales channel for a wearable.

    I think Apple is going to expend a lot of effort over the next 12 months getting into jewellery retail networks internationally, before the 2nd version is launched in a much wider spread than the first version is.

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