The iPhone’s domestic growth story has been an unquestionable success. The device’s international growth story has yet to be written. But as promising as it sounds — iPhone sales in China more than doubled in the last quarter — early signs suggest it might not be quite as easy to write as previously thought.
Why? Because iPhone sell-through growth in the international market appears to be slowing. As Raymond James analyst Tavis McCourt points out, international sell-through growth for the device fell to about 35 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012 from 40 percent in third (McCourt estimates iPhone sales outside the United States were 29.2 million for the period). Now, 35 percent growth is still impressive. Thing is, it was more easily achieved thanks to some shifts in the iPhone launch cycle.
“This would be a strong result except for the fact that the comp was easy internationally for Apple as the iPhone 5 launches occurred far earlier this year in most countries than last year’s 4S launch,” McCourt explains. “March will be a tougher comp internationally.”
How tough? McCourt expects international sell-through growth to slip to 15 percent year-over-year. That’s a hell of a decline. But Apple’s latest guidance does lend it some credence — or, rather, it doesn’t provide a good reason to dismiss it out of hand.
There are a few wildcards that could easily temper it, though. A new iPhone launched earlier in the year would certainly spike sell-through, as would the addition of a big new iPhone carrier abroad. The first, at this point, seems a long-shot. The second, however, is a definite possibility. Apple CEO Tim Cook was in China a few weeks ago chatting with executives at China Mobile, the biggest wireless carrier in the world with some 707 million subscribers.