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iPhone Sales Hit (Dubious) Record, Here's What Apple Isn't Saying

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If the long lines on Friday weren't a good enough indication, Apple wants doubters to know the new iPhone is a roaring success.

Early Monday morning, the company announced that it had sold 9 million models of the iPhone 5S and the iPhone 5C during the first three days of sales -- calling it a new record high for an iPhone debut.

But that's not the whole story.

Apple has turned boasting about record-breaking sales into a tradition: Three days after it debuts a new iPhone, Apple puts out a happy press release. In 2012, the company said iPhone 5 sales topped 5 million. The year before, Apple sold more than 4 million iPhone 4S handsets during its first weekend, and the year before that, it sold only 1.7 million models of the iPhone 4.

So with more than 9 million new iPhones sold this year, the iPhone 5S and 5C certainly are record breakers for Apple again -- a nice fact that they can trumpet to weary shareholders who have seen the stock dip 33 percent over the last 12 months. Those sales -- on top of the more than 200 million downloaded for iOS 7 since Wednesday -- show that early reports of Apple's death are greatly exaggerated.

But there's a rub: Apple has two new phones in 2013, and the company isn't breaking out separate sales figures for the 5S and the 5C. Traditionally, Apple has sold three lines of iPhone at any one time: The new model for $200 with a two-year contract, last year's for $100 and the version for two years ago for $0. This year, instead of slashing $100 off the year-old iPhone 5 with contract, Apple replaced it with the colorful iPhone 5C in hopes of juicing sales for its second-tier phone.

The new strategy makes for an apples-to-oranges comparison between initial sales figures for the two new iPhones and those figures from previous years. Together, the iPhone 5S and 5C sold 4 million more units over the first weekend than the iPhone 5 did in 2012. But what would the iPhone 5 sales number look like if you folded in sales of the 4S at the same time? Apple's not saying. That's essentially what's happened this time around.

We do have one third-party measure that goes toward breaking out iPhone 5S sales from those for the 5C. The app analytics company Localytics concluded that for every 5C activated over the weekend, 3.4 iPhone 5S handsets went online too, according to a study of 20 million unique Apple phones. Though we shouldn't take Localytics' indirect analysis as fact, that ratio implies Apple sold about 6.9 million 5S units.

In Monday's announcement, Apple did indicate that it had sold out of iPhone 5S handsets. "The demand for the new iPhones has been incredible, and while we’ve sold out of our initial supply of iPhone 5s, stores continue to receive new iPhone shipments regularly," CEO Tim Cook said in the release. But even then it's hard to say how impressive that is. Apple reportedly had a short supply of the iPhone 5S going into Friday, especially of its new gold-colored version which proved to be more popular than expected.

This post was updated with information from Localytics.

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