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With limited-edition red iPhone 8, Apple is doing it wrong

Apple and Samsung should sell specialized phones at launch, not after.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The dazzling, candy-apple Product Red iPhone 8 phones are now on sale. You could say that the timing is brilliant, revving up iPhone sales six months after the iPhone 8, 8 Plus and iPhone X first came on the market. Apple wants a second hit on an "older" phone.

But I think Apple and other phone makers are going about its special-edition release backwards, creating a situation that punishes early buyers by withholding the most exclusive models at launch. That's because early adopters already own their phones by the time that special-edition color rolls around. In fact, a delayed special-edition model rewards the late adopters.

LG used Valentine's Day as a hook to drum up interest in the LG V30 in raspberry rose.

Josh Miller/CNET

The people who buy the red iPhone (a portion of these proceeds go to charity) -- or any other special-edition device -- aren't the people who stayed awake until midnight to preorder their phones. They don't form the brand's most fervent base. And they may not care as much about the elite status that owning a limited-edition handset can evoke. 

So why are they getting access to the flashier phone?

If you think color is no big deal, cast your mind back to every iPhone launch where shipments on white, gold, rose gold and jet black models were backordered for weeks. iPhone fans went batshit crazy for fairly neutral shades, and it worked because the colors signaled exclusivity. This was the brand-new iPhone for the year, and everyone who saw the new color knew it.

Case in point: I absolutely love our purple Galaxy S9 review unit, partly because of its lilac finish, which was available on Day One. I want to show it off. And when people compliment me and stare, they're admiring "my" good taste.

Yet Samsung, LG and Huawei have been just as guilty as Apple in releasing special-edition colors after the first, biggest wave of sales. For example, the Batman-themed Galaxy S7 Edge, coral blue Galaxy S8, raspberry rose LG V30 and red Huawei Honor 7X all arrived months after the phones initially went on sale.

My point isn't that special-edition phones shouldn't exist. They absolutely should. My point is that these phone companies can do a much better job creating pride of ownership for unique models when these phones first go on sale, not only months after the fact. It'd be good for buyers, and good for the brands.

Solution: Make special-edition phones a true status symbol

Here's a crazy idea. Apple, Samsung, LG and all the rest could kick off preorders with a limited-run special-edition color.

Let's say Apple made 500,000 red iPhone 8s available at preorder along with the silver, gold and space gray varieties. I picked that number arbitrarily, but it would be an extremely small run. (For reference, Apple sold 215.8 million iPhones in 2017, according to IDC.)

Now imagine that everyone who preorders in the first 24 hours has an option to enter a randomized lottery for one of these exclusive phones. Having a brilliant red iPhone or Galaxy S9 would reward the lucky winner as an early adopter, and also drive preorder sales. Owning one joins you in a rarefied club. (If you didn't win the lottery, you'd still be guaranteed your second choice phone color.)

Contrast this model with preorder buyers today. After the first few weeks, it's impossible to tell the first buyers, the most loyal fans, from those who wandered into a retailer and picked up their phone last week.

And for the mid-year sales slump or the holiday boost? That's easy, too. These phonemakers could pick a second limited color and run the lottery again for those buyers who want to pick up a new device later in the year.


Galaxy S8 in coral blue.


As a consumer myself, I'd of course prefer if we could all buy our phones in the "best" hero color any time we wanted, without having to scramble for a limited-edition run. (And wouldn't Apple contribute even more to AIDS research if Product Red iPhones sold year-round?)

I've got to hand it to Samsung for selling the Galaxy S9 phones in purple and blue, and the Huawei P20 phones in that stunning iridescent "twilight." Huawei also launched a limited-edition Porsche Design Huawei Mate RS phone alongside the Huawei P20 and P20 Pro.

But as gorgeous or interesting as those colors and designs are, if these phone brands are going to run with a limited-edition device anyway, they should find a way to offer the most special designs to their biggest fans first.

Read next: Hands-on with the Product Red iPhone 8 and 8 Plus

Read also: See the LG V30 in raspberry rose

Article updated April 15 at 8:27am PT: Correctly identified Product Red, instead of Project Red.