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Apple could sell 46M iPhones this quarter, analyst predicts

Given Apple's guidance for the current quarter, Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster has boosted his prediction for iPhone sales.

Strong iPhone demand should lead to another quarter of healthy sales. CNET

Apple may be on track to sell 46 million iPhones this quarter, a healthy boost from the 35 million units sold a year ago.

That prediction comes from Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster following Apple's earnings results for the just-ended quarter.

Based on Apple's financial guidance for the current quarter, Munster anticipates iPhone sales from April through June of 46 million units, up from his prior projection of 41 million.

In an investors note released late Monday, Munster said that the iPhone numbers for the January to March quarter suggest that Apple now has an 18 percent share of the global smartphone market vs. 16 percent a year ago. It's a rise that was buoyed by the iPhone 6, which debuted in September.

On Monday, Apple announced its earnings and sales for its fiscal second quarter, which ended March 28. Boosted by sales in China, the company sold 61.2 million iPhones, higher than the 43.7 million sold in the year-ago quarter and the 57.2 million eyed by analysts polled by Fortune.

It would be hard to match the accomplishment of last year's holiday quarter, when sales of 75 million iPhones helped Apple achieve its most profitable quarter in its history and set a record for publicly traded companies to boot.

The strong uptake for the iPhone comes as Apple has become more dependent on the iPhone than ever. Apple makes the bulk of its sales from the iPhone -- around 69 percent last quarter. And with iPad sales still shrinking, Apple needs to ensure that its No. 1 moneymaker can continue to draw in more customers and revenue, especially in the high-end smartphone market.

"We believe the iPhone unit strength is another sign of the iPhone 6 cycle's fundamental difference from prior upgrades given the size increase of the screen," Munster said. "If you look at the high end phone market, the iPhone share gains are more pronounced."

Another plus for Apple is that there are still a lot of existing iPhone users who could potentially upgrade to the iPhone 6 or iPhone 6 Plus. During Monday's earnings call Q&A with analysts, Apple CEO Tim Cook estimated that 20 percent of the iPhone 6 upgrades to date have been from current iPhone owners. That's up from around 13 percent in the December quarter, according to Munster, but still leaves plenty of room for more.

Munster said he sees that measurement as a positive for iPhone gains this year, especially based on the following statement from Cook:

Our current estimate is that about 20 percent of the active installed base has upgraded to a 6 or a 6 Plus, and as I look at that number, that suggests there's plenty of upgrade headroom in addition to -- we want to keep inviting over as many switchers as we can. So between both of those and the first time buyers as well, it seems very good right now.

The overall news is a plus not just for Apple but for its investors, Munster noted.

"We believe iPhone 6/6+ is well positioned to gain share...in the back half of 2015 and will cause Street numbers to slightly increase and move shares of [Apple] higher," the analyst added.