Apple 2.0

Covering the business that Steve Jobs built

Why does Steve Jobs play fast and loose with iPod touch sales numbers?

September 5, 2010: 12:29 PM ET

Take, for example, his claim that it is the No. 1 portable game player in the world

Photo: Michael Copeland

Apple (AAPL) may in fact be selling more hand-held game devices than Sony and Nintendo combined, as Steve Jobs claimed on Wednesday, but journalists trying to fact-check that statement can be forgiven their skepticism.

Part of the problem is that the statement, on the face of it, is absurd. As of January, Nintendo had sold 125 million DS systems. Sony (SNE), for its part, has sold more than 62 million PSPs. As of last week, according to Jobs, Apple has sold some 120 million iOS devices -- a number that covers not just the iPod touch, but tens of millions of iPhones and iPads as well. There's no way the iPod touch could be considered the world's most popular portable game player.

For Jobs' claim to be true he would have to be referring to recent sales. In the last quarter, according to Technologizer, Nintendo sold 3.15 million DS units and Sony 1.2 million PSP units, for a combined total of 4.35 million units.

How many iPod touches did Apple sell? That's the other problem. Apple has never released an iPod touch sales figure. Ever. The best anyone outside the company can do is make educated guesses, extrapolating from the bits and drabs of data Apple releases from time to time.

For example, Apple reported in June that it sold 9.4 million iPods in fiscal Q3. And on Wednesday Jobs revealed that the iPod touch is now the best-selling iPod. So it's certainly possible, as Forbes Oliver Chan suggests, that Apple sold more than 4.35 million iPod touches last quarter.

It probably did considerably better than that. Piper Jaffray's Gene Munster, the only analyst I know who breaks out iPod touch unit sales, estimates that Apple sold more than 6.8 million units last quarter and could sell -- including back-to-school specials -- 7.2 million in the quarter that ends this month.

Of course, not everybody who owns an iPod touch uses it to play games (unlike the Sony PSP and Nintendo DS). But that's another story.

UPDATE: Asymco's Horace Dediu estimates that as of Sept. 1, Apple had sold 45.2 million iPod touches, or 37.7% of the 120 million iOS devices sold. Put another way, Apple appears to be selling roughly two iPod touches for every three iPhones.

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[Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter @philiped]

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About This Author
Philip Elmer-Dewitt
Philip Elmer-DeWitt
Editor, Apple 2.0, Fortune

Philip Elmer-DeWitt has been following Apple since 1982, first for Time Magazine, and now on the Web for Fortune.com.

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