Is 4 million Verizon iPhone sales bad news for Apple?

April 18, 2013, 4:54 PM UTC

Verizon’s iPhone sales are up 25% from last year. Chart: Asymco

FORTUNE —  Verizon (VZ) reported Thursday morning that it activated 7.2 million smartphones in the first quarter of 2013, 4 million of them iPhones.

There are several perfectly legitimate ways to interpret what those numbers mean for Apple (AAPL).

  • Good for Apple: 4 million iPhones is 25% better than the 3.2 million Verizon activated in the same quarter last year.
  • Good for Apple: 55.5% of the smartphones Verizon activated in Q1 2013 were iPhones, which is better than the 51% Verizon activated in Q1 2012.
  • Bad for Apple: Verizon reported that only half of those iPhones were the newest model (i.e., the iPhone 5), which is less than the 60/40 split some analysts were expecting. Piper Jaffray’s Gene Munster estimates that will  lower Apple’s average iPhone selling price 4%.
  • Bad for Apple: In December, the first full quarter of iPhone 5 sales, Verizon activated 6 million iPhones (63% of its smartphones). The 33% quarter-to-quarter fall-off this year (from 6 million to 4 million) is a bigger than the quarter-to-quarter fall off last year (24%).

My colleagues at CNNMoney chose a different interpretation. They compared Apple’s big Christmas quarter to its dependably smaller March quarter and ran this as their lead headline:

More bad news for Apple
Verizon iPhone sales tumble 33% in first three months

That, in my humble opinion, is just wrong. As Asymco‘s Horace Dediu points out, it treats the normal drop off from December to March as if it were breaking news. “It’s the equivalent of writing a headline ‘Fire is cold,'” he suggests, “without adding ‘compared to the surface of the Sun.'”

To his credit, CNNMoney’s David Goldman mentions in the body of his story that “year-over-year, Verizon’s iPhone activations grew by 25%.” But that’s not what his headline says.

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