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Is Apple no longer the BMW of tech?

Rumors continue to spread that Apple will launch a cheaper, smaller iPhone. Does this mean Apple wants its products to be mass market? Is, Apple, in fact, no longer the BMW of tech?

Apple, so the story used to go, will never be cheap. The company will do everything possible to ensure that its products are more expensive and more exclusive.

And yet rumors persist that there will soon be smaller, cheaper iPhones. Today, the Wall Street Journal followed up a report earlier this week by Bloomberg, by suggesting that Apple was working on an iPhone that will be half the size and half the price of current models. (Another rumor offered today was that MobileMe storage would suddenly be free.)

There are some who believe Apple is all about elite sexiness. They will be appalled at the idea of a shrunken iPhone. Every time they hear the phrase iPhone Nano they will reach for the pill drawer. They might even curse that Apple will no longer be the apogee of high design--the BMW of tech.

Perhaps they should go for a run, drink a lot of pomegranate juice, and salute the sun, if they can find it.

Are they about to shrink your iPhone? Josh Lowensohn/CNET

Apple knows smartphones are becoming ubiquitous. It knows that its own inventions, especially the iPad, are leading the way in making Apple products not merely more inventive, but also more accessible.

Grandmothers dig their iPads. And Apple chose to advertise them in the least elitist way possible. There was little suggestion of coolness. The laps in the ads could have been anybody's.

The ads, while promising magic, also promised universality. These were products for everybody, because the mysteries of computing can now be deciphered by everybody. Their design was so beautifully simple.

It's not as if Apple has never made cheaper products in order to attract truly mass audiences. The iPod range offers variations from $49 to more than $200.

But there is one unifying factor for Apple: Can the company make a product that is still recognizably Apple? Can it make a product that, though inexpensive, still bears the design signature of the world's most confident and envied brand?

If it can, the iPhone Nano will come into being. If it can't, it will keep working on it until it can.

Of course, there exists far more competition in smartphones than in MP3 players. Google is trying to ensure that its Android OS proliferates like Starbucks. The Nokia and Microsoft mutual makeover also gives two very large companies a potentially better offering to the masses.

So if Apple can produce a new iPhone that acts as yet another entry point into its brand and is still something of which the company can be proud, it will strengthen Apple's resistance against its competitors.

You know, just like the BMW 1 series, but only 200 bucks, and with a cheap Sprint contract thrown in too. Oh, and free MobileMe.