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Here’s how analysts got everything wrong about iPhone demand

Published May 3rd, 2024 10:28AM EDT
iPhone 15 Plus Dynamic Island.
Image: Christian de Looper for BGR

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With the iPhone still accounting for 50% of Apple’s quarterly revenue, it’s no surprise that Apple’s financial health is often gauged by how well the iPhone is doing quarter to quarter. It is, however, important to remember that efforts to measure the vibrancy of iPhone sales on a quarterly basis can sometimes present an inaccurate and misleading picture.

A prime example of this trap, which is easy to fall into, was made abundantly clear during Apple’s earnings conference call yesterday. For some brief context, the iPhone during Apple’s March quarter generated $45.9 billion in revenue. As a point of comparison, the iPhone accounted for $51.3 billion in revenue during the same quarter a year ago. Year over year, that’s a whopping 10.5% decline.

Now at first glance, with zero additional context, you might be inclined to think that the iPhone is losing its luster with consumers. Or perhaps you might reasonably conclude that iPhone popularity is waning and will continue to trend downward.

In reality, neither of these things is true.

iPhone demand is much steadier than analysts claim

How can a 10% drop in iPhone revenue be viewed as anything but a worrisome sign? Especially when that 10% drop comes out to $5 billion in revenue? It’s a valid question and an issue Tim Cook addressed directly during Apple’s earnings conference call yesterday.

Specifically, Cook articulated that iPhone revenue in Q2 of 2023 was unusually high due to pandemic-related supply issues experienced in Q1. In other words, not everyone planning to buy an iPhone in late 2022 was able to. Consequently, a large number of these planned purchases were pushed off until the March quarter of 2023. This, in turn, made iPhone sales in Q2 of 2023 appear stronger relative to Q2 of 2024.

Cook explained:

Keep in mind, as we described on the last call, in the March quarter a year-ago, we were able to replenish iPhone channel inventory and fulfill significant pent-up demand from the December quarter COVID-related supply disruptions on the iPhone 14 Pro and 14 Pro Max. We estimate this one-time impact added close to $5 billion to the March quarter revenue last year. If we remove this from last year’s results, our March quarter total company revenue this year would have grown. Despite this impact, we were still able to deliver the records I described.

Put differently, if you take away the unique supply issues that plagued Apple at the end of 2022, 2023 Q2 iPhone sales would have been much lower. And in turn, iPhone-based revenue this past quarter would have increased year over year. Again, this underscores the futility of trying to evaluate iPhone popularity through a narrow lens. Evaluating iPhone sales requires one to look at factors that extend beyond an arbitrary 3-month window.

iPhone sales in China

Leading up to Apple’s earnings report, we saw numerous reports claiming that iPhone sales in China were on a steep decline. Counterpoint Research, for instance, put out an especially alarming report. The report relayed that iPhone sales in China last quarter fell by a whopping 19.1%.

Tim Cook, meanwhile, said that the iPhone actually experienced growth in mainland China

Funny enough, one analyst even pressed Tim Cook on the issue. He asked why Apple’s performance in China didn’t align with “the data points that have been repeatedly reported throughout the course of this quarter.”

Cook responded:

I can’t address the data points. I can only address what our results are. And we did accelerate last quarter, and the iPhone grew in Mainland China. So that’s what the results were. I can’t bridge to numbers we didn’t come up with.

Apple’s earnings report this quarter is a nice reminder that not every fiscal quarter for Apple is created equal. Sometimes there are unique events that may artificially boost demand in one quarter and subsequently deflate it in another. All told, ascertaining the vibrancy of iPhone sales by solely looking at quarterly revenue doesn’t always provide an accurate snapshot of demand.

Yoni Heisler Contributing Writer

Yoni Heisler has been writing about Apple and the tech industry at large with over 15 years of experience. A life long expert Mac user and Apple expert, his writing has appeared in Edible Apple, Network World, MacLife, Macworld UK, and TUAW.

When not analyzing the latest happenings with Apple, Yoni enjoys catching Improv shows in Chicago, playing soccer, and cultivating new TV show addictions.