Misleading indicators: Correlation is not causation

Lines at the Apple Store were not solely related to Apple selling more iPhones.

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Apple’s glory days are all behind it and the way you can tell is that the company is more efficient at selling iPhones than it used to be.

Wait, what?

Writing for The Motley Fool, Natalie Walters asks “Are We Past the Golden Era of iPhone Launches?” (Tip o’ the antlers to Mickey.)

Most likely, but not for the reasons you think. The “golden era” of iPhone launches Walters refers to was back when people lined up but actually bought fewer iPhones than they do now.

Just a few years ago, Apple’s iPhone launch events were so popular that people were sleeping outside the stores to ensure they got their hands on one of the new models the day they came out.

Now nobody buys iPhones anymore. Except for about 50 million people a quarter. But other than those people, like, no one.

But the era of camping outside Apple stores may be over.

And why is that? Is it because people just stopped buying iPhones so there were no more lines? Actually, no! Lines correlated to iPhone popularity for a while, but they were mostly caused by Apple’s inability to ramp up production and its struggle to distribute iPhones. Now Apple ships more iPhones for home delivery on launch day and has more retail stores.

iPhone unit sales peaked in 2016, but by then lines had already begun to decrease. Let us enter a “time machine” called “a DuckDuckGo web search” to see what people were saying about iPhone lines when Apple sold the most iPhones ever sold by a company named Apple.

“Apple shares on fire; iPhone lines decidedly chill.”

The line of people, blocks long at prior iPhone launches, barely made it around the corner by the time the doors opened at 8AM ET.

Well, that’s weird! Since iPhone lines = iPhone popularity, you’d think that 2016 would have been when you’d have had to wait the longest to buy an iPhone. It wasn’t.

It should also be noted that even by the more cataclysmic estimates of Apple’s December quarter, iPhone unit sales for 2018 were down about 4 percent compared to 2016. That’s not good, but it’s also not some precipitous decline.

You might have noticed that it has become a lot easier to get your hands on new iPhone models the day they launch.

Yeah, because Apple made it easier. Not because people summarily stopped buying iPhones.

…there were signs of iPhone sales weakness even a year ago when Apple sold nearly a million fewer iPhones than it had in the same period a year earlier. The company tried to brush over this fact by reminding investors that it had still hit a new record for quarterly iPhone revenue…

Psh! How long does Apple think it can survive by just making money?!

How exactly did we reach a point where a company can be scoffed at for making more money?

If you need more proof that the golden age of iPhone sales might be over…

More than just looking at lines outside stores?! Why would we need that?!

…consider the fact that Apple isn’t reporting iPhone unit sales anymore.

And then maybe also consider that no other company in the smartphone business reports unit sales.

iPhone sales have certainly topped out, just like smartphone sales in general. The correlation between that and lines at Apple Stores is not causal, however.

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