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Understanding Why Tim Cook Says iPad Sales Weren't as Bad as It Seems

It's all about inventory, Cook says. Here's why that's both true and a bit of a red herring at the same time.

With iPad sales well below what analysts were expecting, Apple’s Chief Executive Tim Cook didn’t wait for the question and answer session to address the issue on the company’s earnings call.

In his prepared remarks, Cook said that tablet sales were actually ahead of internal projections, but acknowledged that they were well short of some Wall Street estimates.

In its earnings report, Apple noted that it sold some 16.4 million iPads from January through March, down 37 percent from the holiday period and off 16 percent from a year ago. They were also well short of the 20 million tablets that many on Wall Street were looking for.

A big part of the issue, Cook maintained, had to do with inventory both in the past quarter and in the same quarter a year ago.

Apple, like a lot of tech companies, reports sales into the retail channel, which doesn’t always equate to the same number of products bought by consumers in the same period.

In the early part of 2013, Apple was shipping a lot of iPad minis into the retail channel in an effort to catch up to demand for the newly introduced tablet. Cook said that build-up of inventory made for unfavorable comparisons in the current March quarter.

Cook noted that Apple significantly reduced channel inventory — products sold by Apple but not yet in the hands of customers — over the course of the just-completed quarter and makes the case that consumer demand was actually roughly similar to a year ago. Purchases of iPads by customers, he said, were actually 1.3 million more than Apple’s reported sales figure during the quarter. Taking that into account, sales to consumers were off only about three percent from a year ago.

Of course, this is a dangerous game for companies to play. There are other quarters in which companies see their sales numbers artificially high as they boost inventory, and you rarely hear a company say, “Well, yes our sales look good, but really we just stuffed the channel.”

Plus, Apple and its fans have been quick to slam other companies for reporting big sales numbers one quarter and then blaming inventory issues in later quarters.

In any case, Cook said he is pleased with where the iPad is, adding that Apple has sold 210 million iPads in the first four years of the product’s life — roughly twice as many units as Apple sold in the first four years of the iPhone.

And things in the business and education markets are just getting started.

“My belief is the match has been lit,” Cook said. “I’m confident we’ve got a really great start in education.”

Plus, he promised in signature Cook form that there is lots of good stuff ahead, though he of course offered no specifics.

“I can’t help but still be extremely excited about where we are,” Cook said, adding he still sees the tablet market eventually eclipsing the one for computers.

This article originally appeared on

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