Apple's iPhone 15 Probably Won't Spark Sales Growth. That's Starting to Become a Problem for the Stock.

The 15th iteration of the iPhone has been officially unveiled. And it’s not bad. While it’s not leaps and bounds more powerful than the iPhone 14, an improved camera and the addition of USB-C ports certainly have their appeal. The starting price of $799 is palatable enough, too, in line with the prices of other recent iPhones.

If you think the upcoming availability of its smartphone is a reason to buy Apple‘s (AAPL -0.41%) stock, though, you may want to reconsider. iPhone unit sales have been mostly dwindling since 2016, rekindling their downtrend after 2020’s short-lived surge. Total iPhone revenue appears to have peaked in 2021. In the absence of a new game-changing feature for the phone, there’s no reason to expect the iPhone 15 to dramatically reverse this weakness; several analysts aren’t expecting it anyway.

And that’s a problem for Apple stock since more than half of its revenue still comes from iPhone sales. Now, companywide revenue is starting to stagnate.

Are we at — or even past — the iPhone’s peak?

Current Apple shareholders don’t need to panic. This is still the world’s biggest and most profitable company. It’ll survive.

There’s no denying, however, that the iPhone-specific headwind dents the growth-based thesis for owning the stock. The chart below of the iPhone’s total deliveries going back to late 2014 tells part of the tale. Despite the launch of several new iPhones during this stretch, total unit sales have spent more of this time falling rather than rising.

Much of 2020’s strength can be chalked up to the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic although at least some of that demand had been building since 2019. Either way, the unit numbers have been sliding since that surge, marked by a dramatic dip since the last quarter of last year.

Data source: IDC. Figures are in millions.

For a short while, Apple was able to offset slumping sales of the iPhone with higher prices. That’s not the case any longer. The device’s best-ever quarter — in terms of revenue — for the iPhone was the final calendar quarter of 2021. Since then, it’s been stagnant and even in decline for the past three quarters.

Chart illustrating iPhone revenue since 2015.

Data source: Apple Inc. Figures are in millions.

Now, overlay that data with the entirety of Apple’s top lines for the same time frame. With a little more than half of Apple’s revenue still being driven by sales of the popular smartphone, the company’s total sales have also been falling since early 2022.

Chart illustrating Apple's iPhone revenue and total revenue since 2015.

Data source: Apple Inc. Figures are in millions.

Connect the dots. As much as Apple may be trying to shift its dependence away from iPhone sales and toward profit centers like services, this is still mostly an iPhone company. If that particular device is struggling, so is Apple as a whole. And the device is still ultimately on the defensive, according to more than a handful of analysts.

CCS Insight’s chief analyst Ben Wood is one of these doubters, commenting, “The lack of headline-grabbing updates will disappoint some, but isn’t a surprise given the maturity of the iPhone and Watch.” He adds, “It reflects just how refined the iPhone and Watch devices are and how tough it has become to deliver truly disruptive updates every year.”

Evercore ISI analyst Amit Daryanani writes, “Overall, we view the event as mildly disappointing, given that bulls were looking for a price increase on the iPhone Pro model as well as blood pressure monitoring functionality for the Watch.”

Rosenblatt Securities analyst Barton Crockett echoed both sentiments, explaining, “The meh stock reaction reflects a lack of wow in the feature set and lack of meaningful price hike.”

Time to start asking tough questions

For the record, not every observer is a doubter. Wedbush Securities analyst Daniel Ives notes, “Apple’s iPhone 15 launch event was overall an impressive event, which in our opinion lays the groundwork for a major upgrade cycle over the next year that will surprise the Street to the upside.”

Deepwater Asset Management’s managing partner Gene Munster agrees, arguing, “While most of these updates were incremental, they’re enough to attract the 400m iPhone owners with phones more than four years old, which should return Apple to revenue growth in the December quarter.”

Both Munster and Ives make good points. However, neither of these Apple bulls addresses the overarching concern here. That is, current iPhone owners are holding onto their devices for longer and longer, lengthening the upgrade cycle. At the same time, all smartphone makers, including Apple, are running out of new consumers to sell their products to now.

It stands to reason that the sweeping refresh Munster is talking about for the final quarter of this year will leave the company in the same position it’s been in for the better part of the past decade once that upgrade swell has run its course, with weakening unit sales and diminishing pricing power.

If you’re a current or prospective Apple shareholder, it wouldn’t be unfair to start — or continue — asking tough questions about how the company is addressing increasingly inconsistent iPhone sales. It’s such a big profit center that it’s now dragging down companywide revenue.

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