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Apple Can't Afford an iWatch Flop

Stocks in this article: AAPL GOOG SSNLF MSFT CHL T

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- With $160 billion in cash, there's very little that tech giant Apple (AAPL) can't afford. But four years since the release of the original iPad, Apple CEO Tim Cook can't afford missing out on the "next big thing" and expect to get away with it.

Many industry pundits claim that Apple can no longer innovate. There seems to be a consensus that Apple's creativity died along with former CEO Steve Jobs.

In her new book Haunted Empire: Apple After Steve Jobs, Yukari Iwatani Kane, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, described Cook as "stage manager" and Jobs as the star. Forbes contributor Peter Cohan was less gracious. In pointing out Cook's inability to launch the next "industry-transforming product," Cohan described Cook as a "railroad operator."

So on Tuesday, when reports surfaced that Apple was going to launch the highly-anticipated iWatch in the third quarter of this year, there was reason for excitement. Not that it was a surprise. But the iWatch will be the first product launch under Tim Cook. He's finally going to get a chance to release that monkey off his back.

But if reports are to be believed, Cook plans to demolish every product launch record that Apple has had under Jobs. According to Economic Daily News via DigiTimes, Apple has set goals to ship roughly 65 million iWatches. Calling that number aggressive would be a gross understatement. Recall how popular the iPod was. But in its first full year of sales in 2002, Apple shipped just over 300,000 devices. And they considered revolutionary.

As dominant the iPad has been (and still is today), in its first full year of sales, Apple sold 15 million units. And that included selling 3 million in the device's first 80 days on the market. At the time, neither Google (GOOG), Samsung (SSNLF) or Microsoft (MSFT) had a competing product. Apple capitalized on first-mover status. But this time things are different.

Samsung launched its Galaxy Gear last December. The Korean tech giant is said to already be working on its next generation version. Not far behind is Google. The search giant has what it calls Android Wear. Google has already given software developers an early glimpse of the device, hoping they will rush to build various apps. But does that mean Apple is behind? That has never mattered.

The more pressing question is how realistic is this 65 million number. And to what extent does Apple's new relationship with China Mobile (CHL), which has 770 million subscribers, factor into Apple's possible iWatch sales? Unlike previous years, new Apple products will be released to more countries at the same time. (Unlike, say, when the original iPhone was launched and limited only to customers of AT&T (T).)

But even when accounting for these additional advantages, it still doesn't the narrow the expectation gap. According to a survey released Tuesday by Piper Jaffray's Gene Munster, 17% of teenagers said they would buy an iWatch this year if it came at price of $350. The survey questioned approximately 7,500 teens across the U.S. And 61% of them already owned an iPhone.

Granted, the poll tallied fewer than 10,000 teens. But even if we were to scale that number and adjust to what Apple has done in previous launches, while also factoring the impact of more countries, 65 million still seems like a pipe dream. While the interest is certainly there, Munster projects only 5 million to 10 million iWatch sales in the device's first full year.

Apple can't swing and miss on this one. As a shareholder, there is nothing I would love more than to be wrong. Apple has wallowed in obscurity for too long. There is just too much on the line for disappointment to be seen in a number and take away from what might be that revolutionary product the world has been waiting for.

At the time of publication, the author was long AAPL and held no position in any of the stocks mentioned.

This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.

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