Amount of first-time iPhone buyers dropping; upgrades increasing

Sanford Bernstein analyst Toni Sacconaghi wonders if there are enough wealthy people in to sustain iPhone unit growth.

Fortune's Chart of the day: Has Apple run out of wealthy iPhone customers? Jason O'Grady

Sanford Bernstein analyst Toni Sacconaghi produced the chart above for a report that tells an interesting, and potentially troubling, story for Apple.

According to his research the amount of net new iPhone customers (those coming from another platform or no previous smartphone) – the black bars in the chart above – will shrink from 62 percent in 2012 to an estimated 54 percent in 2013, a 13 percent decline. 

Sacconaghi's concludes "barring a signed contract with China Mobile (CHL) or an iPhone priced to sell to the developing world, there is a slim margin of error that Apple will attract sufficient first-time iPhone buyers going forward to meet consensus forecasts for [fiscal year 2014 and 2015]."

He estimates that 2014 and 2015 will see further declines in new iPhone customers (37 and 28 percent, respectively) and that the percentage of people buying iPhones as "replacements" (the blue chunk of the bars above) will increase to almost 70 percent in 2015.

While not exactly the death knell for Apple, the company sold nine million iPhones in their first weekend after all, the trend would be troubling for Cupertino and mean that the company is selling more iPhones to upgraders. This would mean that less new customers are coming into the Apple ecosystem, which could slow the growth of content sales (including apps, music and movies).

Sacconaghi's data assumes that Apple won't sign an agreement with China Mobile, which already has 42 million iPhone users according to some estimates. If such a deal is announced (presumably after China Mobile's LTE deployment) Apple could easily add a large number of China Mobile's 700 million subscribers to its new customer numbers.

Tip: Fortune/Philip Elmer-DeWitt (@philiped)