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Apple Sells 4 Million Units of the iPhone 4S

For a failure, the iPhone 4S sure did well. Apple has now announced that it sold 4 million new iPhones in the first three days of sales. These figures represent twice the previous opening weekend record, set for the iPhone 4 last year. That high level of purchases came despite the continued increase in sales of the iPhone 4 in the previous fiscal quarter.

The widespread media response to the iPhone 4S announcement was that customers would be disappointed that Apple hadn’t revised the industrial design or added flashy new features to a model that would be called the iPhone 5. We long-time Apple watchers were less surprised, partly because Apple has already set a two-year major revision cycle for the phone (with the iPhone 3G and 3GS), and partly because the majority of iPhone owners worldwide are under contracts, typically two years long.

With a two-year contract, if you already owned an iPhone 4, you most likely weren’t yet eligible for a subsidized upgrade. Apple removed some of the envy factor by keeping it virtually identical in appearance to the previous model, even while improving features like the camera and antenna. This allows iPhone 4 owners to remain cool, and should boost sales of the $99 iPhone 4 (with a two-year contract) that became also available on 14 October 2011; similarly, the iPhone 3GS is now free with a two-year contract. Apple didn’t release sales figures for the two older models.

Sales were probably bolstered from several angles. First, original iPhone, iPhone 3G, and iPhone 3GS owners who had waited through upgrade cycles may have finally pulled the trigger. Second, although Verizon Wireless began selling the iPhone 4 earlier this year, that move was relatively low key, and Verizon has continued to promote competitive Android smartphones heavily. This is the first high-profile iPhone launch that Verizon could participate in. Third, along with AT&T and Verizon Wireless, this launch marks the addition of Sprint Nextel to the iPhone-selling carriers in the United States. Fourth, the iPhone 4S launch included two more countries — Canada and Australia — than the iPhone 4 launch.

These sales came despite trouble along the way. At midnight on 7 October 2011, the day pre-orders began, many people repeatedly attempted to order a device for hours before the site became available (I eventually gave up and went to bed). And once the iPhone 4S actually arrived, activation was initially a nightmare, with reports indicating AT&T was having particular trouble. (It took me about five attempts to get my phone activated over Wi-Fi, and both Tonya Engst and Jeff Carlson had to visit AT&T stores to get SIMs swapped appropriately.)

Apple says 25 million customers upgraded to iOS 5 (customers, not devices, so the company must be tracking by Apple ID), which could be anywhere from 25 million to 50 or even 75 million devices. This corresponds with Apple’s complementary announcement of 20 million iCloud signups. If you do the math, that means Apple has to allot up to 5 GB times 20 million accounts or 100 petabytes (PB). I immediately filled my free 5 GB of iCloud storage and had to upgrade to add another 20 GB. iCloud was, not surprisingly, sluggish and sometimes unavailable on Friday and to a lesser extent over the weekend.

High usage also seemed to trouble Siri, Apple’s iPhone 4S voice-control and dictation system, since Siri requires access to Apple’s servers for speech analysis. It’s likely Siri saw disproportionately high initial use as people tried it out and demonstrated it, too. This may help account for why Apple has limited Siri to the iPhone 4S when the iPhone 4 and even the 3GS should be able to run the app. Once Apple has learned more about how Siri usage from the relatively small set of iPhone 4S users impacts the back end servers, it’s possible that we’ll see the company open Siri up to owners of older iPhones too.

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