The reporting of sales after a launch weekend has been a staple of Apple’s communications about product for a long time. Therefore the evaluation of this performance should be made in comparison with previous launches.
But it’s not necessarily a statement of end user purchases. Nor is it a statement purely of shipments. The term “sold” as used in a press release is not an accounting term and it is not something which is meant to be audited.
However, none of that matters. The signal is what should be observed. By deliberately and repeatedly using the word “sold” Apple is expressing confidence that demand for its products is strong. Sure, there is channel inventory in that 9 million unit number but there are also ordered devices which have not been shipped and thus are not counted as sales. There are also depleted store shelves and people angry about not getting their desired phone model. Apple knows this, Tim Cook is making it clear they know this. They have excellent visibility into the distribution of their products. They have excellent inventory management. They are typically conservative in their financial reporting.
So why would anyone interpret Apple’s release as a negative signal? If you want an example of a negative signal, look at how BlackBerry reported its launch performance.
When interpretation of a signal is very different from the literal statement, it says more about the interpreter than about the company.