Apple Watch to be 'most successful smartwatch ever' -- research firm

Apple could sell 20M smartwatches this year, nabbing a quarter of the wearables market, market researcher says. But a flop would hurt everyone.

So, how popular will the Apple Watch be when it launches this spring? James Martin/CNET

The Apple Watch will play a major role in the wearables market this year and beyond, according to research firm CCS Insight.

Worldwide wearable sales will spike in 2015, jumping 158 percent year over year to 75 million units, CCS Insight predicted Tuesday. The research firm says that the Apple Watch, set for release in April, will become the "most successful smartwatch ever" and sell up to 20 million units this year.

"The Apple Watch will be instrumental in taking the wearables market to the next level of growth," CCS chief of research Ben Wood said in a statement Tuesday. "If successful, it'll create a rising tide that will lift the whole market."

The highly anticipated smartwatch, unveiled in September alongside Apple's new smartphones, will start at $349 and come in three versions: standard, luxury and sport.

CCS Insight's prediction for the Apple Watch is certainly on the high end. Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster in December predicted sales of 8 million for 2015. Wall Street has forecast sales of 12 million to 15 million. Apple has reportedly asked its suppliers to manufacture 5 million to 6 million watches for its first quarter of release.

All eyes will certainly be on the Apple Watch when it finally launches. Smartwatches have been available for the last couple of years from companies like Pebble, Motorola, and LG, but none have been able to attract widespread consumer interest. Indeed, smartwatches are still a niche market that may or may not succeed, depending in part on the impact that the Apple Watch has on the industry, according to CCS Insight.

"The current love affair affluent US consumers have with the iPhone guarantees a strong start for the Apple Watch in its home market," the CCS Insight noted. "However, if sales of the Apple Watch fail to meet expectations it could hurt the whole smartwatch market."

Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

While it's impossible to absolutely predict what kind of response to expect, some folks are trying. Over the last several months, Piper Jaffray's Munster has been surveying nearly 1,000 US-based iPhone owners to gauge their likelihood of buying an Apple Watch. He found that the figure was at an all-time high of 10 percent in September 2013 (a year before it was announced) but has since fallen to 7 percent of current iPhone owners.

Looking beyond Apple Watch, CCS said it sees the wearables market in general growing over the next few years. The company says that by 2018, 172 million wearables will be sold worldwide, up from the 29 million that were sold in 2014. The company says that smartwatches and fitness trackers will be the most popular wearable devices by 2018, with others like wearable cameras and eyewear grabbing just a small sliver of the market.

Despite claims that Apple Watch will be a make-or-break for smartwatches, CCS seems bullish on the technology. By 2018, the company says that 44 percent of all wearable sales will be in the smartwatch category.

Eyewear, like the discontinued-for-now Google Glass and Sony's just-announced Smart EyeGlass, will post 3 million unit sales in 2018, according to CCS. But unlike other wearables that will cater mainly to consumers, CCS argues that eyewear will be mainly sold to businesses that have real-life applications for the technology.

By 2018, over 340 million wearable devices will be in use worldwide -- a figure eight times greater than now -- according to CCS Insight's predictions.

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