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iPhone Stages Disappearing Act

Tech investors are pondering a bit of a mystery: Apple's (AAPL) missing iPhones.

By some analysts' estimates, there are 1.4 million iPhones unaccounted for. That is roughly the gap between the nearly 4 million iPhones Apple says it has sold, and the number of iPhone activations by AT&T (T) and Apple's European telco partners.

The discrepancy comes amid concerns that Apple's white-hot growth phase has fizzled following what was viewed as disappointing guidance from the company this week. The news also reignites fears that the hugely hyped iPhone may not be quite as popular as first estimated.

The Case of the Missing iPhones

The disappointments on the iPhone front started early for Apple, as first reported in July. Apple failed to sell out the 1 million iPhones it had supplied on the weekend of the product's debut. The goal was an internal target, say people familiar with the plan.

But Apple didn't exactly blow the number out of the water when reported that it sold 270,000 iPhones in its fiscal third quarter. That total was seen as a letdown to analysts, who had predicted sales of between 200,000 and 700,000 for iPhone's debut quarter.

In the most recent quarter, the gap between what Apple sold and what the telcos activated grew even wider.

As RealMoney columnist Tero Kuittinen points out , Apple says it shipped 2.3 million iPhones and AT&T says it activated 900,000 new iPhone subscribers for the same period.

Analysts at Sanford Bernstein estimate that Apple has shipped 3.75 million iPhones in total, while telcos have activated about 2.35 million phones. The total unactivated unlocked phones might account for 20% of the difference, leaving 670,000 unaccounted for, says Bernstein.

If the estimates are true, Apple is facing a growing pile of unsold iPhones. The company did not provide an immediate comment.

One of the problems for the iPhone sales is that the current model is a slower 2.5 generation technology, and a faster 3G iPhone will be unveiled in early summer. Another damper on demand, say observers, is AT&T. Consumers have strong feelings about the quality of wireless network coverage, and AT&T has not swept any quality awards on this front.

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