Is 5 million a lot of iPhones?

iPhone 5 white

On Monday morning Apple released its tally of opening-weekend iPhone sale: 5 million iPhone 5 models were sold since it went on sale Friday morning in nine countries. The immediate reaction from some was negative: some Wall Street analysts had been expecting sales of twice that.

The thing about this iPhone roll-out is that there were big expectations attached to it. It’s the first redesigned iPhone in more than two years; it’s a 4G phone; and by the end of the year it will be available in more countries than ever. So what’s to be disappointed about? Five million, after all, sounds like a lot.

The iPhone 4S sold 4 million in its opening weekend in October 2011. Here’s Asymco’s Horace Dediu comparing the iPhone 4S’s first weekend with the 5’s:

Analysts who watch Apple were looking for a number that would blow away the previous year’s iPhone model opening weekend sales, as every preceding iPhone launch has done. That’s what Dediu is getting at in that chart. This could be interpreted as Apple “losing its touch.”

Or it could be something else. It could be that Apple can’t build the phones fast enough to sell; or, perhaps after five years of selling iPhones, Apple is getting closer to a point where the gains in new iPhone buyers will still be there but those gains will just be smaller than in previous years.

Regardless, it means a whole lot of people bought iPhones. (And 100 million people upgraded to iOS 6 since the software was made available on Wednesday.) When you add the 5 million this weekend to the 2 million sold in the first day when it was available for preorder last week, plus the rest of the preorder period and sales the rest of this week — assuming Apple gets devices back in stock in its stores — Apple is guaranteed to have a better September quarter than last.

However, there’s more to this than just one weekend of sales. Wells Fargo analyst Maynard Um said that 5 million was a little under what many were expecting, he warned that there are 20 more countries that will get the iPhone 5 this Friday, so don’t get too disappointed yet:

We would note that (1) Apple will have 20 more country launches this Friday (9/28), where, based on our interpretation, means there have been no iPhone 5s sold yet in those countries (though Apple should recognize these as revenue because of its sell-in recognition policy), (2) our expectation was lower and also incorporated lower iPhone 4S sales due to the 5 launch (hence, we still believe there is upside potential to our estimates), and (3) while it may make sense to assume units below 6 million units sold over the first three days (the interpretation of “over 5 million” sold), Apple has, in the past, also been conservative in its interpretation.

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