iPhone sales jumped last quarter thanks to the debut of the iPhone 4S. But just how many phones did Apple sell around the world?
A bevy of 37 analysts polled for a Fortune story by Philip Elmer-Dewitt all chimed in with their iPhone sales estimates for the holiday quarter. And as usual, the forecasts varied.
Coming in at the low end, eyeing sales of 25 million, was Gabelli analyst Hendi Susanto. At the high end, projecting 35 million units sold, were such analysts as BTIG's Walter Piecyk, Asymco's Horace Dediu, and Robert Paul Leitao from Posts at Eventide.
Piecyk revealed his thoughts last week, projecting that out of Apple's record 35 million iPhones, almost 40 percent, or between 13 million and 14 million, were sold in the U.S. alone. Canaccord Genuity analyst Michael Walkley came in lower with an estimate of 30.5 million.
Though all the analysts questioned believe it was a blockbuster quarter for Apple, why the disparity in estimates?
Elmer-Dewitt tried to shed some light on that topic by distinguishing between professional financial analysts and "independent" analysts, e.g, bloggers, enthusiasts, and individual investors.
The consensus among the 22 Wall Street analysts came in at 29.74 million, a rise of 83 percent from 2010's final quarter. But the average among the 15 independent analysts hit 33.42 million units, a jump of almost 106 percent from the prior year's quarter.
To answer why pros and independents differ, Elmer-Dewitt pointed to a revealing column by Asymco's Dediu, in which Dediu claimed that Wall Street analysts sometimes keep their estimates on the low side so that if the actual numbers are higher, the stock goes up.
But so-called independents have no such vested interest and therefore strive to be as accurate (or perhaps optimistic) as possible.
Professional analysts might argue with Dediu's theory, but Elmer-Dewitt pointed out that the independents typically are closer than the pros at hitting the mark.
At the end of the day, they're all looking into their crystal balls trying to come up with the numbers. And although it's a given that the iPhone 4S has been a huge hit (Elmer-Dewitt believes it may account for more than half of Apple's sales last quarter), we won't know the actual figures until the company releases its quarterly results on January 24.