Inside Apple's iPhone 4S: 'S' is for Sales

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Already drawing record preorders and long lines, Apple's just-launched iPhone 4S is poised to become the best selling smartphone yet in the history of the company.

Leading up to today's launch of the iPhone 4S, AppleInsider has been offering a closer look at some of the features of the next-generation handset. Given that the 'S' in the device's moniker was never officially defined by Apple, five potential definitions have been offered.

Today's conclusion isn't about features, but instead the explosive and continued growth of the iPhone platform — a trend that's expected to carry on with the iPhone 4S. Today, 'S' is for Sales.

iPhone 4S: A longer wait

Since debuting in 2007, the iPhone has soared high on continued hype — and a booming smartphone market — to become the highest-selling, most profitable device in the company's portfolio. It's an upward trend that has continued, without fail, with every new iPhone model introduced.

But this year has been different. Though iPhone hardware has historically been introduced in June at Apple's annual Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple opted to wait until October to hold a special event and unveil the iPhone 4S.

With four months added to the life cycle of the iPhone 4 as the premier smartphone in Apple's lineup, the rumor mill was given even more time to dream up what the company's next iPhone might feature. Some of the rumors were plausible, like a redesigned appearance; others were questionable, like a brand new cheaper iPhone model for emerging markets; and some were out of left field, like a last-minute claim that a redesigned "iPhone 5" would be exclusive to Sprint, the third-largest wireless carrier in the U.S.

Leading up to last week's unveiling of the iPhone 4S, no one outside of Apple could say with certainty what was going to be unveiled. And with outlandish claims aplenty, initial reaction by some enthusiasts who invest in rumors was one of disappointment.

In that respect, to some, the final 'S' in this series could also stand for "Same," as in, the iPhone 4S has the same design as the iPhone 4. But so far there's been no evidence that the general public — the masses who buy millions of iPhones — are at all bothered that the iPhone 4S looks and feels just like its predecessor.

In fact, there's plenty of evidence to the contrary.

Graphic by Horace Dediu of Asymco.

Records already broken

The one-two punch of the iPhone 4S unveiling and the death of Steve Jobs in a span of just two days hadn't fully settled in by the time the iPhone 4S became available for preorder. Almost immediately, the iPhone 4S sold out for launch day delivery from Apple, and new orders were given an estimated arrival of one to two weeks.

A flood of interest from customers tested Apple's servers, as the company's website at times showed errors to customers and would not take orders. By later in the day on Friday, systems were once again running smoothly.

Then on Monday, Apple revealed that one million preorders for the iPhone 4S were sold on the first day. That's a new record for the company, which had a previous best of 600,000 iPhone 4 units sold in a single day in 2010.

iPhone 4S

The numbers suggest that this weekend the iPhone 4S should easily exceed Apple's record of 1.7 million iPhones sold over a three-day launch window. That too was set by the iPhone 4 in 2010.

The iPhone 4S has already had the strongest start of any iPhone yet, and next week Apple is expected to reveal that as many as 3 million units were sold over the weekend. But can the iPhone 4S maintain that momentum once the hype over a new product has died down?

iPhone 4S: How high can it go?

Tremendous growth has been par for the course with the iPhone since 2007. For example, in Apple's 2010 fiscal year, iPhone unit sales grew 93 percent year over year.

Apple is expected to have achieved a similar achievement this year, when its final quarter of fiscal 2011 is revealed by the company next Tuesday. In the company's previous quarter concluding in June, it recorded record sales of 20.34 million iPhones.

Sales for the September quarter, during which the iPhone 4 was Apple's high-end handset, will likely reflect consumer anticipation ahead of the next iPhone. For example, in the June quarter of 2010 when the iPhone 3GS was Apple's premier device, iPhone units were down sequentially as hype built for the iPhone 4.

But Apple's current quarter, which concludes in December, will reflect two and a half months of iPhone 4S sales, along with a potential bump from the holiday buying season. It's expected to be Apple's best quarter ever, with one projection calling for 25 million total iPhone sales in the three-month period.

Sales 2
Chart by Horace Dediu of Asymco.

In addition to a holiday sales boost, there are also a growing number of loyal iPhone users ripe for an upgrade. For example, many customers who purchased their iPhone 3GS with a two-year service contract are now seeing those contracts expire.

An overwhelming majority of iPhone users have consistently expressed satisfaction with Apple's handset. Because of that, a recent projection by Wall Street analyst Gene Munster with Piper Jaffray called for 18.8 million iPhone 3GS users to upgrade to Apple's iPhone 4S.

If history is any indication, Munster's assumptions will likely prove to be conservative, something he himself has admitted. For example, his figures call for Apple to sell 104.4 million iPhones in the company's 2012 fiscal year, a sum that would be just a 35 percent increase from 2011.

At this point it's not a question of whether the iPhone 4S will outsell the iPhone 4 and break new records for Apple — that's expected. Instead, the question is: by how much will the iPhone 4S will surpass the iPhone 4 and continue Apple's tremendous growth? While the upgraded handset packs an impressive set of features with Siri, the A5 chip, an 8-megapixel camera and an improved antenna, it's the sales of the iPhone 4S that will ultimately determine its legacy.

A line of iPhone 4S customers are led in to Apple's Fifth Avenue store on Friday

For more, see the previous installments of AppleInsider's Inside Apple's iPhone 4S series, included below: