The iPhone bubble?

The iPhone's selling like mad. But are speculators skewing the sales numbers?

By Farhad Manjoo

Published July 3, 2007 6:12PM (EDT)

Analysts' estimates of weekend iPhone sales are off-the-charts amazing. Apple sold 700,000 units of the super-phone in its opening weekend, according to Goldman Sachs (or 500,000 according to Piper Jaffray). The numbers are running about double what the same analysts had predicted would happen -- in other words, Apple wildly beat expectations.

The phone's getting scarce on the shelves, too. Many AT&T retail locations ran out of iPhones on Friday and Saturday, and Apple stores around the country -- and especially those in California -- are now out of stock. Engadget's been monitoring Apple's online phone finder and it reports that as of this a.m., "Apple's only showing a 42 percent availability across the nation of which we're guessing most are the less sexy 4GB models." (The phone comes in two flavors: 4GB storage for $499, and 8GB for $599.) It's unclear whether this signals a supply problem -- some stores are getting replacement stocks -- but if you've been thinking you should stop by and get yourself one, you may be running out of time.

Another report concerns Apple's financial take on the phone: It's apparently very healthy. The business research firm Portelligent got an iPhone this weekend in order to take it apart and track down its every glistening part. When the surgery was done, Portelligent determined that parts for the 4GB model cost Apple $200 per phone, with $20 more for the 8GB model. The estimate excludes the labor needed to assemble the phone -- and it also omits Apple's considerable investment into the design and software -- but still, Apple's clearly ringing in a double-digit margin on each unit sold. Very nice.

As a somewhat-useful point of comparison, Gizmodo runs down the history of the Motorola RAZR, the last big it-phone, which has sold, so far, more than 50 million units. (It did so in two years, Giz notes, faster than the five it took Apple to ring up 50 million iPods.) As it stands, the iPhone's on a faster trajectory than the heroin-skinny RAZR, which took several months to sell 750,000. But simply starting fast doesn't win the race. Gizmodo notes that iPhone, unlike RAZR, only works with one cell company; it only works in the U.S.; and it's a "smartphone," which have traditionally not sold as well as non-smarties like the RAZR. These are all reasons to tamp down expectations that iPhone could beat the RAZR's performance (which expectations, I should note, aren't put out by Apple. The company wishes to sell only 10 million through 2008).

I'd add one more question mark to iPhone's long-term sales: the opening-weekend speculator skew. Nearly everyone who bought an iPhone this weekend most likely got two: one to try out -- either to keep or, if it sucked, to return -- and one to sell. Apple stores limited per-person purchases to two units (AT&T only let you buy one), and nearly everyone in my line went to the limit; I even know one guy who went store hopping to get more. EBay has conditioned us well. We know that scarcity sells big, and if you wait in line for several hours, it doesn't make sense not to try to cash in on that time.

But speculator demand might not track larger consumer desire for the iPhone; if lots of people are now buying up iPhones only to flip them immediately -- or to sell as soon as Apple runs out -- then maybe there aren't as many folks as it seems who actually want to use the phone?

This would matter for Apple if after-market sales crashed and speculators stopped buying. And, hey, take a look at what's happening in that market: My quick perusal of completed iPhone auctions on eBay doesn't reveal very many high-priced sales. You can spot some that sold for over $900, but the typical 8GB iPhone seems to be running between $650 and $800 -- that is, at about $50 to $150 over retail price -- and, worse, a lot of auctions didn't sell at all.

You can see what I'm getting at. The dread B-word, the question all economic killjoys begin asking when people seem to be having too much fun: Is there a bubble in the market for iPhones? I'll be keeping an eye on eBay sales for the next few days. If the above-retail premium falls, we might start to question the phone's potential to maintain such stellar numbers over the long term.

Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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