Apple iPhone: Unable To Ring Up Enough AT&T Customers?

Too much hype? Or not enough? It's clear, from AT&T'searnings news this morning, that Apple iPhone projections were way ahead of reality. That "popping" noise could be Apple shares.

I wrote earlier today that Apple's highly hyped iPhone performed nowhere near Wall Street expectations during its first 30 hours on sale: AT&T reports 146,000 activations during its first weekend on sale. Piper Jaffray for one expected 500,000 iPhones to sell during that first weekend, and the firm's analyst Gene Munster characterized the AT&T news as a 'disappointment.' "This is a case of Apple letting its 'little brother' getting the bad news out," Munster tells me.

If that's the case, then you gotta wonder what might be in store for us tomorrow when Apple reports its earnings. Soleil says today that the AT&T numbers may not be the best barometer. A measure, sure, but simply not the best measure since it's possible--even likely--that a big chunk of iPhones that were purchased during the last 30 hours of the quarter weren't activated in time to count towards AT&T's numbers. A good point. Soleil says the actual number of iPhones sold could be closer to the Street average of 250,000.

Still, Munster says the iPhone release is reminiscent of the December 2001 quarter when Apple first released the iPod, also with disappointing numbers that ultimately came around. He says he still stands by his $205 price target, a Street high, and anticipates 3 million iPhones sold this year, ballooning to 9 million units sold in calendar year 2008. But, he says, there's no question the news from AT&T is "definitely a disappointment."

CIBC reports this morning that it has seen a significant decline in iPhone sales over the past ten days. Inventories at stores and demand thin, the firm reports. CIBC also reports that it expects a new, 3G version of the iPhone released in the U.S. by November, ahead of the holiday season and earlier than expected. That news could stall iPhone sales even further if customers decide to put off their purchase and wait for the newer version to be released.

And that could be a big problem for Apple, further dampening what seems to be slackening demand already. Munster has some explaining to do, no question. But so do many analysts on the Street caught up in the Apple run-up. As I wrote yesterday, two days does not a success or failure make. And there's plenty of arguing about just how good 30 hours of data really is. Think of the AT&T news as a kind of exit poll. A snap shot. Same goes for Apple's earnings report Wednesday after the bell. Important data, sure, but not the hard and fast numbers investors will need to make up their own minds as to just how successful, or not, the iPhone truly is.

That makes Apple's September quarter all the more important. Munster still sticks by his 3 million iPhones sold by the end of the year; 9 million by the end of calendar year 2008. Again, lots of optimism. But investors would be well served to temper that optimism, any optimism, with a healthy dose of reality. Didn't we go through this, on a far grander scale, a few years back? Once burned...

Questions? Comments?