What the Verizon phone means for Apple

Verizon is expected to announce tomorrow that the iPhone will be available on its network. We take a look at the challenges and expectations for Apple that go along with a major new carrier partner.

Kent German/CNET

When Verizon takes the stage at Lincoln Center in New York tomorrow to share the "latest news" with us, it's almost a given that it's going to be the long-awaited iPhone on Verizon's network.

The press conference is going to be held in New York, far from Silicon Valley and the Bay Area, where Apple typically holds its major product events. Instead, this announcement will be on Verizon's turf, which means tomorrow will probably focus on what kind of plans the carrier will offer, whether it's 3G or 4G, and when customers can start buying it. In other words, this is Verizon's event, not Apple's.

For Apple, adding a secondary carrier in other countries isn't a major news event--it's barely a press release. But when it's the U.S., it's a different story. AT&T's exclusivity deal has been the subject of much hand-wringing and thousands of blog posts mainly because AT&T's perceived inability to handle the sheer amount of traffic the iPhone dumps on its network. Verizon has, for better or worse, become the symbol of a solution to the dropped-call problems experienced by loyal iPhone owners.

But how, exactly, does the iPhone being on Verizon's network affect Apple? In short: it's going to be good. It's a new crop of customers to go after, and the chance for head-to head sales competition with Android's biggest supporter for the first time. But there are also potential pitfalls, like managing outsized expectations, and the possibility of navigating a new release cycle.

• New crop of potential iPhone owners. AT&T's added a lot of subscribers since it's been offering the iPhone, (6.5 million in the third quarter of 2010 alone) but that will in all likelihood slow down. Nine out of 10 people in the country already have a cell phone, so there's a limit to the number of new customers it can add. With Verizon, Apple will have access to people who have yet to switch to AT&T or buy an iPhone. It's certainly possible many of those people won't buy an iPhone at all, they don't want a smartphone, or they prefer a BlackBerry or an Android phone, but Apple (and Verizon) are betting that the nation's largest carrier can tease out some iPhone holdouts.

"How many new customers?" is quickly becoming the favorite tech guessing game now that "when will the iPhone come to Verizon?" appears to have been answered. Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster estimates that Verizon could sell 9 million iPhones in 2011, which is roughly equal to the number of iPhones AT&T sold last year.

That's not a net gain necessarily for Apple though. Some current iPhone owners are yearning to switch from AT&T to Verizon, which could "cannibalize" or take iPhone sales away from AT&T. While they'd be selling a new device (a Verizon iPhone will have different chips in it to enable it to run on its network), that won't mean acquiring new customers for Apple. Munster said he believes 6.5 million Verizon iPhone sales will go to people who otherwise would have purchased from AT&T. But that forecast also includes Verizon adding 2.5 million iPhone sales on its own.

• Android vs. iPhone on Verizon. Android has a large and growing fan base--it's on 25.5 percent of phones sold worldwide, according to Gartner. But when Verizon, the country's the largest seller of Android phones, Apple's chief competitor, finally can offer the iPhone, how much will those numbers change, if at all? If Verizon subscriptions for iPhones go up despite a slate of new Android phones (such as we saw at CES last week ), you can bet Apple will make hay of that bit of data. The opposite is true too: if Android sales on Verizon continue unabated despite the presence of the iPhone, or if Verizon customers don't show a lot of interest, it will give Apple critics something else to crow about.

• Potential change in Apple's product release cycle. Since its introduction in 2007, every successive iPhone model has been released on a yearly basis in June or July. The same pattern is expected this year: at WWDC in early June, Apple will introduce the iPhone 5, several weeks later it will go on sale in Apple stores, as well as carrier stores and other approved retailers.

But if this Verizon iPhone is released in, say in February or March, that could put it out of sync with the model released for AT&T and other carriers in June/July. Will they sell the iPhone 4 on Verizon for a shorter period of time, and then introduce the iPhone 5 on Verizon and AT&T at the same time? Will they delay the iPhone 5 later than usual to keep its new Verizon customers from feeling like they bought old technology? These are questions that we probably will not find out the answers to tomorrow.

• Management of insanely high expectations. The reported problems iPhone customers have had with AT&T's network have bred this notion that Verizon will be a savior, that the carrier will somehow be able to handle the immense load of data from iPhones in a way that AT&T could not. Verizon, naturally, is saying it's ready .

In any case, the problem with too-high expectations is the inevitable letdown. It's not just iPhone owners who are expecting a lot from the Verizon iPhone: Apple investors are too. The stock jumped five points today in the face of potential news of the Verizon partnership. But to be fair, if anyone has experience dealing with the hype-letdown cycle of the tech world, it's Apple.

Be sure to join us for our live coverage of Verizon's press conference Tuesday at 8 a.m. PT.

 

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