There may be more to Apple s new deal with Leap Wireless than meets the eye. Apple could be using Leap through its CricketWireless brand as a guinea pig carrier to test if Americanconsumers are ready to pay full price for their iPhones, accordingto BTIG analyst Walter Piecyk. If that s the case, theimplications could be enormous: Apple could shed the mortal coil ofthe operators and start selling its iconic smartphone directly toconsumers. (Apple may be expanding its experiment beyond Leap. According to TechnoBuffalo , Sprint prepaid operator Boost Mobile is getting the iPhone aswell.) Apple already offers unsubsidized iPhones in the Apple Store andthrough other sales channels, but it s hardly the focus of itsstrategy. |
Apple s primary sales channel is the carriers, whichabsorb much of the cost of the device up front. In exchange, thecarriers lock subscribers into long-term contracts and ultimatelycharge their customers higher voice and data rates to recoup thosesubsidies. The prepaid service Leap offers through its Cricket Communicationsbrand turns that model on its head. It charges a higher price forthe phone in this case, $500 for the 16 GB iPhone 4S and $400 forthe 8 GB iPhone 4 in exchange for a much lower monthly serviceplan. American consumers have typically fallen for the allure ofthe cheap phone, which has made Apple reluctant to challenge thetraditional subsidy model, but Piecyk thinks Apple may bereconsidering its strategy.
From the BTIG blog (registration required): We believe that industrywide Q2 phone sales have been sluggish aswe previously forecast and in addition Apple might already befeeling an incremental lag in iPhone sales ahead of an expected newproduct launch. To be clear, the less than 200,000 iPhones thatLeap is likely to sell each quarter barely moves the needle forApple, but Apple has added several small operators in the U.S.during the quarter. More importantly, the change in upgradepolicies by large U.S. post-paid operators might have induced Appleto send the proverbial canary into the coal mine to see if theAmerican consumer is willing to fork over $500 for a 16 GB iPhone4S in order to save on a monthly data plan compared to the $200that the post-paid operators are charging. If that canary leaves the coal mine still singing (i.e., Leap meetsor exceeds its modest sales expectations), Apple may very well havea huge opportunity on its hands.
The number of SIM card plans hasexploded in the past year, offered not only by T-Mobile andAT&T but also by a host of mobile virtual network operators(MVNOs) that ride over the former two operators networks.Tracfone s Straight Talk offers essentially the same plans asAT&T at almost half the price ($45) and even undercuts budget services such as Cricket. MVNOs such as Straight Talk and H2O Wireless hardly have the huge brand recognition of AT&T and T-Mobile,but if Apple were to decide the market is now ripe for unsubsidizediPhones, it could use its considerable marketing muscle to educateconsumers about prepaid SIM card services. When Apple and AT&T launched the original iPhone in 2007, theycharged full (or near-full) price for the devices: $500 to $600,depending on the model. After an initial rush, sales dropped, andit wasn t until subsidies kicked in that the iPhone boom trulybegan. Given that history, Apple may be hesitant to dive back intounsubsidized sales again.
But the market is different today than itwas in 2007. First, Apple s initial foray into full-priced iPhones didn tcarry any benefit for the consumer. AT&T still locked customersdown into two-year contracts and still charged high voice- anddata-plan rates. Second, there are a lot more options for theiPhone today.
There are now a plethora of MVNOs using AT&T snetworks, and T-Mobile (and its MVNO partners) will soon be able to support the device fully . There s also the question whether Apple s customers are willingto pay what Apple deems is the full retail value of the iPhone.Leap isn t forcing its iPhone customers into contracts and isoffering cheap data plans, but it s still subsidizing the device.Its two versions of the iPhone are going for $150 less than whatApple charges for its unlocked phone in the Apple Store. A fullyloaded iPhone 4S runs $850 , which is going to be well outside many consumers price range.If Apple does pursue an unsubsidized strategy more aggressively, itmay have to focus on older-generation models, which it sells atmuch steeper discounts. Also from GigaOM: A Global Mobile Handset Forecast: 2011 15 (subscription required) Instapaper for Android Arrives. Will Users Buy It? Microsoft Quandary: Can Windows-First Policy Work in the iPad Era? Meet Cloudee: Boxee Launches Cloud Video Sharing App The Next Hot Smart-Grid Market: Brazil.
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