Analyst Favors iPhone Carrier Polyamory
Though Verizon’s new Droid ad campaign might seem to preclude one, Apple would be wise to ink an iPhone distribution deal with the carrier–if not to hasten iPhone adoption, then to slow rivals that would supplant it.
That’s the argument put forth by Piper Jaffray analyst Chris Larsen in a research note to investors Monday. Larsen feels that the cost to Apple (AAPL) of developing a CDMA version of the iPhone for Verizon’s (VZ) network and the subsidies the company might lose by ending its exclusivity deal with AT&T (T) would be a small price to pay for the spike in iPhone sales they would create.
“Although the iPhone is a strong player in the smartphone market, expanding its multi-vendor strategy could allow it to dominate the industry, as it does with the iPod,” Larsen writes. “The U.S. market is the world’s largest smartphone market, but we believe there is a land grab in the U.S. for smartphone share.”
Expanding his argument, Larson adds, “Apple’s exclusivity with AT&T has left the door open for strong competition from competitors, such as Research In Motion’s Blackberries, Palm’s webOS smartphones and Google’s Android operating system on multiple smartphones from OEMs such as Motorola, HTC, Samsung, LG, and others. Making the iPhone available to the other 150+ million subscribers (~2/3s of subscribers) not on AT&T’s network could result in iPod like adoption.”
Keeping the iPhone exclusive–while it might enable Apple to do more innovative things, as COO Tim Cook noted yesterday during the company’s quarterly earnings call–would also give those rival devices and platforms more time to catch up. If Apple really hopes to keep its lead in the U.S. market, it must do away with exclusivity deals, the same way it’s doing away with them abroad.
That’s bad news for AT&T. Because, as I’ve noted here before, a move to nonexclusivity in the U.S. would brutalize the carrier’s subscriber base. Analysts have long said that a material number of AT&T iPhone users would flock to Verizon’s superior network given the chance.
Larsen agrees. “A move to non-exclusivity in the U.S. could have a material impact on the U.S. wireless carriers,” he writes. “AT&T could lose meaningful smartphone share, while we think all the other carriers would gain share. We believe Verizon would be the largest beneficiary of non-exclusivity and the development of a CDMA iPhone.”
Continuing, Larson explains, “With 35% of AT&T’s iPhone sales coming from new customers, we feel it is reasonable to assume the company’s total iPhone sales could decline by 30% or more and that Verizon could pick up the bulk of this lost share (why switch to AT&T for iPhone if you haven’t left by now and the device is now available through your carrier; Verizon’s network quality could be a reason to switch from AT&T).”