Another war has developed in the Apple analysis community over sales of the company’s new iPhone 4S.
On one side are the bulls, who point to huge lines and wait times in the US and Asia as evidence that the 4S is a blockbuster product and Apple will deliver a positively massive quarter.
On the other side are the bears, who point to multiple reports of Apple slashing iPhone orders in its Asia supply chains, possibly as a result of component shortages.
This argument is more than academic: Apple’s stock has dropped for two straight days while the broader market has blasted higher.
So, who’s right?
If we had to bet, we’d side with the bears: We think there’s an increasing risk that Apple’s iPhone sales in the quarter may be disappointing.
The first point to make here is that the two observations above are not mutually exclusive. Right now, Apple can be experiencing both:
- Massive demand for the iPhone 4S (as evidenced by the long lines and wait times), and
- Cutbacks in production driven by component shortages
In fact, importantly, the second condition may be exacerbating the first: The fewer phones Apple produces, the longer the lines and wait times will be and the more demand there will appear to be.
The second point is that the reports of order cutbacks in Apple’s supply chain are no longer limited to one Asian news site (Digitimes). Now, similar reports have been published by several firms, including Susquehanna, Citi, Stifel, and Cleveland Research.
Here’s a brief summary from this morning on Seeking Alpha:
“10:37 AM: Susquehanna believes Apple has cut Q4 iPhone production by ~4M units, though its checks suggest the orders have been pushed out rather than cancelled, perhaps due to supply constraints. Meanwhile, Citi and Stifel believe a shortage of iPhone circuit boards from supplier MFLX, which has facilities in Thailand, could be a factor.”
Just because there are multiple reports, of course, doesn’t make them correct. But where there’s smoke there’s often fire.
The third point is that Apple has experienced exactly this problem before, six months ago, with the iPad 2.
In the first quarter of this year, Apple launched the iPad 2. In the weeks after the launch, there was overwhelming demand for the product, with absurd lines and wait times to get it. Some Apple analysts pointed to these lines and argued that Apple was going to have an absolute monster of a quarter, with blow-out iPad sales. And yet, when the quarter’s results were reported, the number of iPads sold was shockingly low–only 5 million instead of the (low-balled) 7 million expected.
On the conference call for Q1, Tim Cook delivered this explanation for the shortfall:
“The other products, Mac in balance and iPod in balance, and iPad has the mother of all backlogs that we are working very hard to get out to customers as quickly as we can.”
In other words, only 9 months ago, Apple found themselves in what might be a similar situation to the situation they’re in now: Demand for a new product may be significantly outstripping the company’s ability to make and deliver it.
Consequently, sales of the new product, the iPhone 4S, at least in this quarter, may be disappointing, especially because expectations are unbelievably high.
Importantly, having a production problem due to component shortages is a high-quality problem. A much more serious problem would be a lack of demand.
As long as demand stays strong, iPhone 4S sales hurt by production problems would merely be pushed out into future quarters. But given the fact that Android phones have now nearly closed the gap with the iPhone (some people now consider the best Android phones to be better than iPhones), there’s a risk that some sales that are postponed might ultimately be lost. And that would be bad news for Apple.
But, focusing just on this quarter, the point we would stress here is that long lines and wait times may not be indicative of MASSIVE demand for the iPhone 4S. Instead, they may be indicative of a production problem and, consequently, a shortage of iPhones and iPhone sales.
And that could translate into a disappointing performance in a quarter that almost all analysts expect to be a blow-the-doors-off blockbuster. After all, the iPhone now accounts for more than half of Apple’s revenue. And the argument last quarter, when iPhone sales were surprisingly weak, was that Apple would make it up (and then some) this quarter.
Stay tuned! More as we get it…
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