The iPhone’s Wary New Rivals

The iPhone’s Wary New Rivals

Talked to BusinessWeek about the new iPhone.

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WIRELESS June 14, 2009, 7:30PM EST

The iPhone’s Wary New Rivals

By cutting prices on some iPhones, Apple is moving its iconic handset onto turf held by low-end smartphones and full-featured cell phones

By Olga Kharif

New iPhone products and price changes are never cause for celebration among Apple’s rivals in the wireless industry. The latest additions to the iPhone family are no exception. This time around, Apple (AAPL) has lowered the handset’s price, moving the iPhone onto turf now occupied by low-end smartphones and full-featured cell phones.

On June 8, AT&T (T) began selling an iPhone for as little as $99 with a two-year contract. The new price should help Apple reach new, more budget-conscious buyers—people who have never purchased smartphones before. According to research recently released by Yankee Group, 41% of 1,500 Americans surveyed in February said they are likely to buy a smartphone, vs. a regular-featured phone, for their next mobile device. The price cut alone may increase demand for the iPhone by an extra 10%, estimates wireless expert Chetan Sharma.

Lowering the price moves Apple into new realms. “The phones that are most vulnerable are the less-advanced smartphones in the $100 range,” says Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis at consultant NPD Group. Samsung, LG, Sony Ericsson, and Pantechare in danger of losing some ground within AT&T stores, says Matt Thornton, an analyst at Avian Securities.


These handset makers’ margins might erode as well. In the first quarter of 2009, the average smartphone sold for $155 after carrier subsidies, down from $204 in the year-ago quarter, according to NPD. Now smartphone makers must be prepared for another $50 price drop. “That sets the bar higher for the competition to undercut or match Apple,” Sharma says. “[Manufacturers] will have to cut their margins and carriers will have to match what AT&T offers.”

As it cuts prices on the existing generation of iPhones, Apple is also releasing a new device, the iPhone 3G S, which it says will have faster data transmission speeds. Apple says the new model can surf the Web twice as fast as the older iPhone 3G, offering video recording capabilities and longer battery life. RBC Capital Markets analyst Mike Abramsky expects Apple to have 2.4% of global handset market share by the fall of 2010, up from 1.1% last year.

Rivals may take some solace from analysts who say that while this iPhone is better than older iterations, its improvements are not as earth-shattering as those of earlier models. This “is not a huge, dramatic change for what people want it for,” says Michael Mace, principal at Rubicon Consulting. Arguably, prior-generation iPhones offered more drastic improvements. Introduced in 2008, the iPhone 3G came with a built-in Global Positioning System and an applications store, in addition to offering twice the speed of the original iPhone. The year before, the original iPhone was the first best-selling device to boast a touchscreen.


Indeed, rivals are also better prepared to meet the iPhone’s challenge head-on with their own best-selling products. “There’s a change now,” says NPD’s Rubin. All major U.S. carriers boast strong iPhone alternatives: Sprint Nextel (S) offers the Palm (PALM) Pre;T-Mobile USA sells the T-Mobile G1 smartphone, which runs the Android operating system put together by a Google (GOOG)-led coalition; and Verizon Wireless and Sprint, like AT&T, continue to sell versions of Research In Motion’s (RIMM) BlackBerry.

What’s more, some loyal Mac-heads are rebelling against high prices to upgrade to the iPhone 3G S. Existing users upgrading to a newer device typically account for about 20% of new-model sales during the first quarter of availability. But many 3G S upgraders will have to shell out an extra $200 to move to the new device. A petition circulating on the Twitition site asks Apple and AT&T to let existing iPhone users upgrade at the same rate as new users. It gathered more than 11,400 signatures in a matter of days.

But AT&T and Apple may have ways to create headaches for rivals. AT&T is considering reducing its iPhone plan rates. The company is finalizing a slew of new, more affordable family and business calling plans, as well as cheaper data plans that will be exclusive to the iPhone, says Richard Doherty, director at consultant Envisioneering Group. The new plans are expected to be announced in the coming weeks, though possibly not in time for the iPhone 3G S launch on June 19. For weeks, however, AT&T has been mum about any move toward more flexible iPhone pricing. “Our rate plans for iPhone 3G S are unchanged from iPhone 3G,” writes AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel. “We don’t have further comment on this.”


Today, an iPhone plan costs at least $1,680 over the two-year term of a contract. That amount needs to come down by at least $240 over two years for AT&T to grab mainstream phone buyers and boost iPhone sales by as much as 25%, Sharma estimates. Apple has sold 21 million iPhones in the two years that the device has been on the market. The boost would give AT&T even more of a lead in smartphone services; the company already claims it has twice as many smartphone users as any other U.S. wireless service provider.

As subscribers move to AT&T for the iPhone, Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel could suffer the most. While it has a temporary exclusive on the popular Palm Pre device, Sprint “does not have a product it can offer at $99 that can be a strong competitor to the iPhone,” Rubin says. As the next-largest rival, Verizon Wireless may have the most to lose, he says. T-Mobile USA may be on safer ground, he adds. “T-Mobile users tend to spend less on data, and it’s unclear if in this economy they’d make a jump to AT&T,” he notes.

Kharif is a senior writer for in Portland, Ore.