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Initial iPhone 6S sales to get a boost from China, analyst says

Apple says it's on track to sell more new iPhones during this year's initial weekend than it did last year. China will play a significant role in that, according to Piper Jaffray's Gene Munster.

China will account for a boost this year's iPhone sales during launch weekend, says one analyst. CNET

If the new iPhone 6S line gets off to a hot start, Apple may have consumers in China to thank for helping to light that fire.

That's the perspective from Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster in projecting how well the new smartphones might sell in their first weekend of availability, which kicks off Friday, September 25.

Apple has already indicated that it's heading toward a sprightly launch. Preorders for the new iPhone 6S and 6S Plus began two days ago, and on Monday a company spokeswoman said those preorders were That level of demand leads Apple to forecast that it's "on pace" to top last year's first-weekend sales of 10 million units of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus.

So how much higher might it go? Munster believes that Apple will record iPhone 6S and 6S Plus sales of 12 million to 13 million for the first weekend. He said that from a high-level view, the iPhone 6S cycle seems to be off to a 10 percent to 20 percent better start over the iPhone 6. There's also new factor that will play a key role in this year's sales. It's called China.

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Last year, China was not part of the initial iPhone 6 launch weekend. The country, and its massive population of smartphone shoppers, was excluded because of a delay in regulatory approval for that round of new phones. This year, however, China is one of the 12 countries and territories where the iPhone 6S line will first go on sale, and preorder demand for the new iPhones has soared there, according to CNBC, citing a blog that tracks the wait time for new iPhones.

Though the Chinese smartphone market has become saturated and thus less vigorous than it had been, it remains tops around the world. Earlier this year it passed the US as Apple's biggest iPhone market.

That should mean a good boost for the iPhone 6S. "Given that China accounts for >20% of iPhone units, all else being equal, first 24 hour orders and first weekend sales should be higher this year than last year," Toni Sacconaghi, of the Wall Street firm Sanford C. Bernstein & Co., wrote in an investors note Monday.

Munster expects China to contribute around 2 million units in iPhone sales during the first weekend, from September 25 through September 27.

That does make it more challenging to do a year-over-year comparison, and perhaps excluding China would put a different spin on first-weekend sales. Still, Munster said he thinks the new phones are off to a solid start.

"While we view today's comments [by Apple] as positive overall, we believe they are driven more by production, which makes it difficult to triangulate actual demand," he said. "The reality is that demand is good enough that Apple is selling as many units as the company can make and thus initial production of the iPhone 6S is better than the iPhone 6."

iPhone sales could benefit from a couple of other factors, according to Munster.

All four major US carriers are now forcing or at least encouraging customers to stop buying subsidized phones via a two-year contract in favor of plans in which they pay the full retail cost for the phone in exchange for the ability to upgrade at any time. Though many consumers will still stick with subsidized two-year agreements, Munster said he believes that between 2.9 million and 4.4 million U.S. smartphone customers could upgrade early, which "could provide a slight tailwind to iPhones in the back half of this year."

Plus, the older iPhone 6 is likely to gain more customers. With Apple dropping the price of the iPhone 6 by $100, Munster said, that phone is expected to see heavier demand across emerging markets.

Beyond China, New Zealand is the only other addition to the list of countries that will be first to get the new iPhones. The other locales are Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, Puerto Rico, Singapore, the UK and the US.