By Philip Elmer-DeWitt
October 6, 2008

Here’s bit of upbeat economic news to brighten a gloomy Monday.

On Aug. 1, a London-based investor who calls himself “Tommo_UK” posted a message on The Mac Observer’s Apple Finance Board asking anyone who had bought an iPhone 3G to provide three pieces of data: the serial number (with a few digits X’d out), the date of purchase, and the first 13 digits of the so-called IMEI number.

The International Mobile Equipment Identity is a unique 15 digit number assigned to every cell phone when it is manufactured and can be found on the back of the box in which the iPhone is packaged. Tommo_UK’s plan was to gather enough IMEIs to decipher the meaning of those digits and determine Apple’s production rate. To get things rolling he offered his own: 01 161200 06652xx, purchased on July 11, the day the iPhone 3G was launched. (link)

Two months later, the TMO’s Apple Finance Board — with a lot of help from a member of Investor Village‚Äôs AAPL Sanity board who calls himself “howlongtoretire” — has gathered IMEIs on nearly 150 iPhone 3Gs and published them in a big Google docs spreadsheet here. The most recent entry: a 8 GB black iPhone manufactured on Sept. 29 and purchased on Oct. 4 that was, according to its IMEI, the 9,190,680th iPhone 3G built this year.

Writing in Bullish Cross on Monday, Andy Zaky and Turley Muller have used this data to make some bold predictions about what Apple is going to say when it releases its quarterly earnings report later this month.

They acknowledge that even if Apple has built more than 9 million iPhones, that doesn’t mean they have all been sold. Some of those devices may have been defective. Some may be sitting in inventory on store shelves or loading docks.

But taking all that into account, Zaky and Muller conclude that Apple has probably sold considerably more iPhones last quarter than even the Street’s most bullish analysts anticipate. Piper Jaffray’s Gene Munster, for example, predicted on Sept. 22 that Apple would sell 5 million iPhones in its fourth quarter, which ended five days later. (link)

Zaky and Muller’s bottom line:

“even if a whopping 1.5 million iPhones of the total IMEI registered devices are unsold as of today, an unlikely assumption, it would still put 3G iPhone sales at 7.6 million units.” (link)

Why is 7.6 million significant? Because coming into its fourth quarter, Apple had already sold 2.42 million first-generation iPhones. So if Tommo_UK’s IMEI data can be trusted and if Zaky and Muller’s analysis is correct, Apple (AAPL) has reached its oft-stated goal of selling at least 10 million iPhones in 2008 with three months to spare.

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