The strange math of Apple’s alleged massive iPhone 5 order cuts

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The Sunday evening Wall Street Journal article claiming that Apple (AAPL) had cut its iPhone 5 display orders drastically for the March quarter made quite a splash. The WSJ piece seemed to support the original Nikkei claim about Apple cutting its iPhone 5 display orders in half from the originally planned order of 65 million units. This would be a massive adjustment. But Apple uses the same new display type for both iPhone 5 and the latest iPod touch. Neither WSJ nor Nikkei addressed this, however — both seem to be referring to just iPhone 5 displays.

The latest estimates for iPhone sales during the Christmas quarter average around 52 million units. Let’s assume (charitably) the iPhone 5 portion of this may be anything from 30 to 40 million. In the seasonally soft March quarter, iPhone 5 unit sales might be 25 to 35 million units. Sales of the latest iPod touch tend to drop by 50% from the Christmas quarter to the March quarter, but could add 4 million units to the total number of devices equipped with 4-inch Retina displays Apple sells in the quarter.

So if the most likely number of 4-inch screens Apple is reasonably expected to sell in March quarter is around 30 to 40 million units, why did Nikkei publish a report stating that Apple had halved its display orders for the quarter from 65 million units? Nikkei was quite specific about the 65 million number. And it clearly tied it to iPhone 5 component orders, not total iPhone or iPhone 5 and iPod touch orders.

In what world did Apple expect to order components for 65 million iPhone 5 handsets in the seasonally soft March quarter?

Perhaps the weirdness of the math is why the current version of the WSJ article no longer cites the 65 million unit figure. Sometime between Sunday at 8:00 p.m. EST and Monday at 7:00 a.m., the Journal decided to drop the number from its article. But if the 65 million number is not right, is the estimate for halving March orders correct?

The tension ahead of Apple’s holiday-quarter earnings report and March quarter guidance just went up a few notches.

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