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How many iPhones did Apple sell last weekend? Analysts dispute the numbers

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Odds are good that not all 9 million are in customers' hands

iPhone 5S 1024
iPhone 5S 1024

As usual, Apple followed its first weekend of new iPhone availability with an announcement of record-breaking sales, but the number was particularly eye-popping: the company claimed 9 million iPhone 5S and 5C devices sold. That's up significantly from the 5 million iPhone 5 units Apple moved last year, but there are some new factors at work this time: the phone is available in China for the first time on day one, and Apple's selling two new phones instead of just one. Despite those changes, the analyst community is speculating on whether all 9 million phones actually made it into consumers' hands.

Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster, who is traditionally very positive about Apple, went on Bloomberg TV yesterday and said he believes that about 5.5 million iPhones were actually sold to consumers. He believes the other 3.5 million make up "channel fill" — devices sold to customers like carrier stores to fill their inventory. In prior years, this wasn't a concern. Apple pushed as many of its new phone as possible to retailers, and the company typically sold all of them, so there was never any confusion about whether the devices sat on AT&T's and Verizon's shelves or whether they ended up in the hands of consumers. This year, however, it looks like a portion of the 9 million sales are iPhone 5Cs sitting in the inventory of Apple's partners.

Does 9 million actually equal 9 million?

Since Apple stopped selling the iPhone 5 this year instead of just decreasing its price, retailers needed to "refill" their inventory with the replacement iPhone 5C. As reported by Business Insider, Munster used Apple's channel inventory numbers from its past quarter, when the company said it had 11 million total iPhones in inventory, as a basis for his estimates; from there he believes that the iPhone 5C could account for 3-4 million units. Peter Misek at Jefferies and Chuck Jones at Forbes arrived at similar conclusions, though both believe the sell-through amount is in the 2-3 million range.

While there's some logic to these analyst predictions, it's also worth noting that these are just estimates — only Apple really knows exactly how many units it sold last weekend. In fact, Munster's original launch weekend estimations came in at 5 to 6 million — his "sell through" explanation might be a convenient way for him to make his original estimate look more accurate. Apple had no comment when asked — but regardless of how opening weekend went, we should find out a lot more about how the iPhone 5S and 5C launch went next month when Apple reports its quarterly earnings.