SAN FRANCISCO -- When Apple launches new products, Wall Street always watches closely. But this weekend, there's more on the line.
With questions swirling about the company's strategy and rising competition, investors will be scrutinizing every data point more than usual - including the length of every line outside Apple stores - as two new iPhones go on sale Friday.
"This launch is more important than the past couple because of the fall in Apple's stock price," said Brian Colello, an equity analyst at Morningstar. "During virtually every other launch, the outlook for the company has been more optimistic than what we see today."
When Apple launched the iPhone 5 a year ago, the stock was trading above $700. Since then, it has slumped by a third and closed at $472.30 Thursday.
Since Silicon Valley legend Steve Jobs first introduced the iPhone in 2007, the device has taken the mobile phone market by storm. But rivals, led by Samsung, have begun to catch up, in part by making cheaper smartphones that run on Google's free Android operating system.
That's sparked concern that Apple's iPhones are too pricey for developing markets such as China. This worry was exacerbated by the unveiling of the iPhone 5c earlier this month, which is a cheaper version of the new iPhone 5s but still deemed too expensive for developing markets.
A near riot broke out when the iPhone 4S made its debut in Beijing in January 2012. But by late Thursday night, there was not even a line outside Apple's flagship Beijing store. And this was at 10.30 p.m. when the store's Sanlitun area buzzed with many evening revelers for the Mid-Autumn Festival, a public holiday.
When Apple launched the iPhone 5 last year, the company sold 5 million units during the first weekend. This year, Apple is launching two phones and releasing them in more countries, including China, at the same time. This has Wall Street looking for a higher number from this weekend.
Citi research analyst Glen Yeung estimated that Apple will sell about 7.75 million units of the iPhone 5s and 5c combined over the launch weekend.
Morningstar's Colello and Will Power of RW Baird are looking for 7 million, while Gene Munster of Piper Jaffray forecasts 5 million to 6 million units.
"The 5 (million)-6 million range may be viewed by some as a disappointment, given that it will include China as a launch country for the first time," Munster wrote in a recent note to investors. "Demand is healthy, but slightly below where demand was for the iPhone 5."
The sales weekend started first in Australia, which will be followed by 10 other countries, including China, the U.S., Japan and the U.K.
Colello considers sales of 7 million iPhones this weekend a baseline that Apple must meet to avoid raising concern about early supplies or customer demand.
Last year, Apple sold 5 million iPhone 5 units during the first weekend, but this did not include China. When the device reached that country later in the year, Apple sold 2 million more units during the initial weekend - for a total of 7 million, according to the Morningstar analyst.
This year, Apple took pre-orders for the iPhone 5c, starting on Sept. 13. But the company did not release pre-order numbers in the days that followed - something it had done during previous launches. That omission made some investors nervous.
"The non-disclosure is a mild negative for now, but we prefer to gain further insight into initial demand for Apple's higher-end iPhone 5s before rushing to judgment," Colello said.
Apple did not make the iPhone 5s available for pre-order, so the first indications of demand for the higher-end device will come this weekend. But analysts are now worried that Apple may not release any sales figures from the weekend - another change from previous launches.
"Apple not releasing sales figures would be immediately viewed as a disappointment," Munster wrote in a note to investors.
Still, the Piper Jaffray analyst said that the supply of iPhone 5s units may be limited because Apple may not have been able to make enough of the new fingerprint sensors that go into the device.
"If the iPhone 5s sells out early in the weekend, it means demand is healthy and supply is short," Munster wrote. "But if 5s supply lasts through the weekend, it could mean that demand is weaker than expected."
During last year's iPhone 5 launch, Apple stores in the U.S. largely sold out of the devices by midday Saturday.
By Alistair Barr, USA Today; contributing: Calum MacLeod