iPhone 6 Plus shipping delays and Apple’s resurgent niche phablet

iPhone 6 Plus shipping delays are still a month long through Apple’s official website, though users who walk into any tech retail store have a decent chance of walking out with one if they want. That’s contributed to the ongoing debate over whether the 6 Plus is truly supply-constrained and what that means for its popularity: does this mean that the phablet is more in-demand than Apple expected? And does it explain why so few people have been seen using the Plus during its first month of availability?

For weeks leading up to the launch, rumor after rumor pegged the regular iPhone 6 as being available in large quantities, but the 6 Plus being only available in limited numbers due to supply and/or manufacturing issues. That was confirmed on launch day, when the 6 Plus was hard to find, even for those who got in line early. It seemed that it wasn’t that the Plus was selling out due to demand, but rather that there was almost no inventory to begin with.

Over the next few weeks, the eyeball test told a similar story. Although it’s far from scientific, keeping an eye on what people are using while walking down the sidewalk in a walking city like New York consistently offers general insight into which phones are the most popular. For instance, based on the eyeball test alone, last fall it was immediately apparent that the iPhone 5S was roughly two to three times more popular than the iPhone 5C when both launched together. When analysts began their own head counts and confirmed as much, the news didn’t come as a surprise.

As such, the eyeball test consistently confirmed that the regular iPhone 6 was outselling the iPhone 6 Plus by a massive margin. In the first few weeks I stopped counting somewhere around the fiftieth iPhone 6 that I spotted in public, but in that same time I only saw four people using the 6 Plus. With the 6 Plus still in short supply, this 12-to-1 ratio didn’t tell us anything about whether the 6 Plus would be selling well if it were available in better quantity. It did, however, eliminate the possibility that the 6 Plus was in short supply because it was selling like gangbusters.

That left only two possibilities: either the iPhone 6 Plus isn’t selling well because it’s simply not available, or it’s not selling well because the public just isn’t interested in a phone that large. And the only way to get that answer is to wait until it becomes available in large supply, and then wait for the results. In the mean time a decent number of my online friends say they plan the buy the iPhone 6 Plus eventually, when it becomes more widely available. But all of them, except for one, work in the tech industry in some capacity.

Among my mainstream friends, my family, the people I went to school with and so on, interest in the 6 Plus is somewhere between zero and “worthy of the occasional punchline” territory. That tells me there would have to be an extraordinary shift in public sentiment for the 6 Plus to ever come close to matching sales of the iPhone 6. Not that such a notion was ever on the table to begin with, at least among those who follow the industry.

What I found notable this week is that I suddenly spotted as many iPhone 6 Plus units in the wild (four) as I had in the previous month. When working with such small numbers it’s difficult to determine the difference between a change in trend and mere happenstance. But it does offer a small glimmer of hope to those big-phone-loving tech geeks who are convinced that the public will end up embracing jumbo sized phones when it’s all said and done.

However, any such sentiment must be tempered with a dose of reality. Those who follow the smartphone industry even casually are aware that one the Android side, where phones of various sizes have been available for some time, those in the five inch and under range (where the iPhone 6 falls) tend to vastly outsell those larger than five inches (iPhone 6 Plus territory). In the Samsung market the Galaxy S5 outsells the Galaxy Note by a whole number multiple, and so on.

So it’s to be expected that when it’s all said and done, the iPhone 6 will end up outselling the 6 Plus by some whole number multiple. Phablets are still a niche, and there’s little reason to expect that to change any time soon. Apple will measure the success of the Plus by whether it can account for a respectable minority of iPhone sales. If it does end up being anything close to a 12-to-1 ratio, then the Plus will have to be considered a colossal failure. But if the ratio ends up being something closer to, say, 3-to-1 or 4-to-1 then Apple can sleep soundly at night knowing that its gambit to go big has paid off.