Apple's iPhone sales peaked years ago, but the pieces are in place for a new 'super cycle'

Key Points
  • The most bullish Apple analysts were predicting a new "super cycle" for the iPhone ahead of Tuesday's iPhone 12 announcement.
  • They say that with more people than usual using older iPhones, plus an updated design and more pricing levels than ever, the iPhone 12 could spur the kind of growth Apple hasn't seen in years.
  • But Apple will have to grapple with an ongoing global pandemic and make a more compelling case for its introduction of 5G.

In this article

The Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max is unveiled during a virtual product launch.
Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The iPhone hit its peak three years ago.

That's when Apple reported its last blowout holiday quarter for the iPhone, selling more than 77 million devices that generated $61.1 billion in revenue. It's been downhill for Apple's iPhone sales ever since.

But the most bullish Apple analysts were nonetheless predicting a new "super cycle" for the iPhone ahead of the iPhone 12 announcement on Tuesday.

Apple's last super cycle was in the fourth quarter of 2014, when it reinvigorated the iPhone lineup by introducing larger screens that matched rival devices from companies like Samsung. That quarter, Apple sold 74.47 million iPhones (up 46% from the previous year), generating $51.18 billion in revenue (up 57% from the year before).

Apple's iPhone business has never seen that kind of growth again.

Revenue peaked in the fourth quarter of 2017, but even then it was only up 13% from the previous year, and unit sales dropped 1% -- the increase in revenue was thanks to a higher average selling price, as Apple released its first $1,000 iPhone.

The bull case

So what's with all the bullish calls for another super cycle given the iPhone's lackluster (or negative) growth over the last three years? A few factors are working in Apple's favor this time around.

Time for an upgrade: Analysts estimate that 30% or more of current iPhone owners are using a device that's at least 3 years old. That's a lot more people than are normally feeling the itch to upgrade in a given year.

Speed: The iPhone 12 series will be the first from Apple to connect to new 5G wireless networks that promise faster speeds for downloading and streaming, along with the potential for a new generation of apps that take advantage of the network.

New look: The new iPhone 12 has the first significant change to the look and feel of the iPhone since 2017 -- it's thinner and lighter than recent versions, with flat edges that hearken back to the iPhone 4, instead of slightly rounded ones introduced with the iPhone 6. That new blue color looks pretty cool to boot.

Pricing and segmentation. With the iPhone 12, Apple is offering more versions than ever, and the company stealthily increased the price of the baseline model, from $699 in the iPhone 11, to $799 or more for the iPhone 12. (There's also a smaller iPhone Mini that starts at $699.) That segmentation increases the chance of having a suitable iPhone for every type of buyer, while likely raising the average selling price unless the Mini proves to be a runaway hit and sells more than the other versions.

All of that creates a chance for an iPhone sales jump like Apple last saw in 2014. At the very least, it could spur a revenue jump like 2017.

"It really comes down to if Apple can exceed the 231 million peak units from 2015. If they can, then this goes into the Cupertino hall of fame as a super cycle," Wedbush analyst Dan Ives, who has been predicting a super cycle for months, told CNBC in an interview Monday. "If they can't, then the disappointment will be reflected in the stock. The only way is to execute on the super cycle."

The bear case

But a super cycle is far from a slam dunk. Here's why:

Little compelling case for 5G. During Tuesday's event, Apple started talking about 5G before it even mentioned the iPhone 12. Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg made an appearance to brag about his company's 5G expansion across the United States. There was a lot of talk from Apple about data speeds and jargon like "millimeter wave" thrown around.

But the reality of 5G is that it's not nearly as prolific as today's 4G LTE networks. Even if you buy a 5G iPhone 12 this month, there's a good chance you won't be able to experience the top speeds Apple talked about.

In addition, most of the apps you're already using on your iPhone work just fine on 4G LTE. Those connections are more than fast enough for placing FaceTime calls, streaming YouTube videos or downloading a podcast in a few seconds. Apple failed to give a compelling, real-world use case for 5G on Tuesday, meaning at best a 5G iPhone will future-proof your device for when all those promises actually come to pass.

Luckily for Apple, 5G is a messy, complicated idea to grasp, giving the company room to leverage its marketing muscle. People will be barraged with the message that the iPhone 12 is going to be faster, and carriers are giddy to help out with that message to push their 5G expansion through the iPhone.

Only a small design change. Apple moved to new form factors in 2014 with the iPhone 6 and 2017 with the iPhone X. A new iPhone feels even newer when there's a complete redesign. The iPhone 12 is technically a redesign, but it's more of an iteration on the 2017 design than a brand new form factor.

We're in the middle of a pandemic. There's a recession. The unemployment rate was 7.9% in the U.S. in September. Millions are out of work. Congress continues to stall on passing a new stimulus bill. Spending hundreds of dollars on a new iPhone just isn't going to be an option for a lot of people around the world.

On top of that, with so many brick-and-mortar stores closed or operating at limited capacity, Apple will have to rely more than ever on online orders. That means its shipping and logistics network needs to be up to snuff to grapple with the new demand. We'll get a better sense of how that's going as the new iPhones start to ship to the first customers next week.

Apple CEO Tim Cook reveals the new iPhone 12.


Years ago, Apple execs signaled that they knew they couldn't report insane iPhone sales growth forever. Eventually, things would level out and the company would need a new source of growth.

So Apple began talking up its services business, which includes things like App Store sales, streaming music subscriptions and purchases of extra storage in iCloud. That new mission came into clearer focus last month when Apple introduced its Apple One services bundle. And if it wants to go a step further and make Apple One even more compelling, it can still tie the iPhone into future bundles.

On top of that, the company has released new hardware accessories like AirPods and Apple Watch, which have spurred impressive growth in its wearables business.

Apple proved that it can cure its addiction to the iPhone and build a broad and profitable ecosystem around its massive base of about 1 billion iPhone users around the world. For example, Apple reported $142.38 billion in iPhone revenue for the fiscal year that ended in September 2019, down from $164.89 billion in the previous fiscal year. But its Wearables category grew from $17.38 billion to $24.48 billion and its Services category grew from $39.75 billion to $46.29 billion during the period.

And don't forget how investors have continued to reward Apple's stock despite the iPhone sales slump. Shares are up nearly 65% year to date, and Apple hit its $2 trillion market cap milestone in August, just over two years after it hit $1 trillion.

As long as iPhone sales remain somewhat flat, Apple's revenue can continue to grow and its stock can continue to rise.

So even if Apple misses the mark and can't fulfill analysts' predictions by delivering another super cycle, the good news is Apple just needs to keep the iPhone business steady and focus on building compelling services and accessories around its most important product line.

Verizon CEO on Apple 5G's phone and rolling out 5G in the United States
Verizon CEO on Apple 5G's phone and rolling out 5G in the United States