Reports of 'weak' iPhone 5 demand don't tell whole story

It's tough to believe that Apple would go from supply constrained to halving its future orders in the space of two months

When it comes to Apple, tea-leaf reading is always in season.

If you believe the Wall Street Journal, which cites the seemingly ubiquitous--and perenially anonymous--"sources familiar with the situation," Apple has halved component orders for the iPhone 5, less than a month out of its holiday quarter. A report from the Nikkei supports the Journal's information, citing reduced purchases of LCD screens from Sharp and LG, and reduced flash memory orders from Samsung.

Given that sources seem to agree Apple is indeed cutting its orders for components, the real puzzle becomes what's at the the root of the change? According to the Journal, it's "weaker-than-expected demand" for the iPhone 5 that has spurred Apple's decision.

In demand

If you find this perplexing, you're not alone. The iPhone 5 had two million pre-orders in the first 24 hours of its availability, doubling that of its predecessor, the iPhone 4S. There was no slouch in actual sales, either: In its debut weekend, customers picked up iPhones to the tune of 5 million, compared to 4 million for the iPhone 4S. (Though, to be fair, the iPhone 5 launched in two additional regions: Hong Kong and Singapore.) Just a few months later, the company moved an additional 2 million iPhone 5s when the device went on sale in China. While those numbers may not be enormous improvements over the previous year's sales, it's not as though the numbers have declined.

By the end of Apple's most recent quarter, which included the initial iPhone 5 launch (but not China), Cupertino had parted with a total of 26.9 million iPhones, a record figure that was up 58 percent over the previous year's sales.

Of course, that last figure is where problems get introduced, because Apple doesn't break out its individual model sales, and its iPhone line-up also includes the $99 iPhone 4S as well as the free iPhone 4. However, Apple chief financial officer Peter Oppenheimer added during the company's fourth quarter financial results call that "demand for iPhone 5 continues to outstrip supply." As late as November, we were still hearing that overwhelming demand for Apple's latest handset was running up against supply problems.

It seems tough to believe that Apple would go from supply constrained to halving its future orders in the space of two months, especially when those two months include the company's usually blockbuster holiday quarter.

While we won't have official numbers on how Apple performed in its first quarter of 2013 until the company releases financial results next week, Oppenheimer's forecast from last quarter anticipated $52 billion in revenue and earnings per share of $11.75 in the first quarter of 2013, which compares to $46 billion in revenue and earnings per share of $13.87 in the first quarter of 2012. (The CFO was careful to note that due to the calendar, there was an additional week in first quarter of 2012, as opposed to 2013.) Apple, though, gives notoriously conservative guidance, and analysts' average expectations are hovering at $13.34, just shy of the company's previous year performance.

Multiple choice

So if demand continues strong through Apple's first fiscal quarter of 2013, why would it drop off suddenly--and so precipitously--in the year's second quarter? There's a spectrum of speculation about what might be behind Apple's cuts, and not all of it is about people not wanting the iPhone 5.

Writing elsewhere at the Journal, Matthew Lynley suggests that a number of other things could account for the company's order changes: Apple might have ordered too many components; the iPhone 4 and 4S, with their lower price points, might be cannibalizing iPhone 5 sales; or consumers might be waiting for the next iPhone, already.

Lynley also points out that problems within the supply chain could account for Apple reducing its orders. Of his theories, this seems to have the most evidence behind it, as we've already seen reports that attribute the company's difficulty meeting demand to supply issues. Reuters cites similar evidence, noting that some analysts believe the problems lies with an inability to actually build the phones fast enough. That could lead Apple to amass a higher inventory of parts for its current phone, even as it may need to look ahead to making component deals for the parts in its next phone.

Along those lines, Michael Grothaus at The Unofficial Apple Weblog suggests that this may be a sign that Apple's moving to a six-month refresh cycle on its entire iOS device line. I have to admit, that seems unlikely to me--I suspect the recent third-generation to fourth-generation iPad refresh was more a case of the exception than the rule.

As with so many things in life, though, the likely explanation is a combination of factors. Price drops for the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S move fairly modern, Retina-display-equipped iPhones into pretty much any price range--and for many, those earlier phones are good enough. Meanwhile, rumors constantly have Apple on the verge of introducing a new model--the buzz du jour is that the company will roll out a low-cost iPhone.

And, make no mistake, Apple does face increased competition from the rest of the smartphone market. Android--particularly in the form of Samsung--has made gains in market share, if not in profit share. While not all of its gains may be at the expense of Apple, there are clearly some consumers who are choosing Android phones over Apple, whatever the reason.

But despite the day-to-day fluctuations of the stock market, none of this presages the demise of the iPhone, or of Apple. As my colleague Lex Friedman recently noted, it's pretty hard to come up with any reasonable scenario that involves Apple's doom these days. So rather than spend an inordinate amount of time staring at those tea leaves, you might be better off finding a more productive use for them--like brewing yourself another cup.

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Tags smartphonesAppleAndroidconsumer electronicsiPhonesiPhone 5

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Dan Moren
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