Analyst says iPhones on multiple carriers next year: we say, probably not

Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster has been a leader in nailing Apple (AAPL) news and trends ahead of the Wall Street pack. On Monday, he sent a note to clients stating that Apple will likely be selling its iPhone on other carriers in the U.S. sometime next year, as reported by TUAW.

I think Apple eventually will undertake such a program, but next year seems highly unlikely. For starters, if Apple abandons AT&T (T), it will likely get a smaller subsidy from Ma Bell for each phone that it sells. Exclusivity has a price, and Apple will pay to do business with others.
Make no mistake -- AT&T has benefited hugely from the iPhone. But AT&T and Verizon (VZ) are far and away the most powerful mobile carriers in the country. Assuming that AT&T has no leverage is not logical.

It's not just a matter of leverage and loss. Apple's iPhone is built on GSM, the dominant global handset standard. In the U.S., only AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM mobile networks. To build a CDMA iPhone would require a significant design effort. The iPhone is a design masterpiece from a component standpoint; building a CDMA version would be like putting a V-8 engine into a shoebox.

But even the best hardware designers in the world couldn't make a phone of the iPhone's capabilities without sacrificing battery life. A CDMA iPhone would also need a mechanism for switching to GSM networks overseas: CDMA phones dont't work in Europe, or in several large regions of Asia. Making the iPhone compatible with two networks would take up precious real estate on each model.

But let's say Apple actually does design a CDMA phone for 2010. It's entirely unclear whether Apple could produce enough units to meet demand; last quarter, Apple's CFO said its biggest iPhone problem was that it couldn't meet demand even now. While Apple has never been shy about selling oversubscribed products, a massively oversubscribed product might cause a backlash.

Then there's the issue of which other U.S. carriers would match up with the iPhone. Verizon would be the best choice, but it's is in the process of building out a new data network that runs on a broadband protocol called LTEa 4G super-fast broadband network system. While Verizon hopes to start switching over its network in late 2010 to LTE, the transition won't be complete for several years. Apple is unlikely to hitch its wagon to a carrier that is transitioning from one network type to another, as this is the key pain point and a source of failure. And Apple hates when customers get a bad experience with its phones.

Besides, Verizon doesn't need Apple, and it will likely drive a very hard bargain with Jobs and company. Verizon has managed strong growth without selling an iPhone; it's more likely to enter the Apple market by reselling Apple tablets, not iPhones.

That leaves the other CDMA carrier, Sprint (S), which has tied its star to the Palm Pre. Does that mean it couldn't take the iPhone? No, but Sprint's network is less robust than Verizon's. Sprint has invested in big upgrades but it still is geared to a much smaller footprint of users. And the quickest way to bring a wireless 3G network to a grinding halt is to unleash a firehose of iPhone subscribers. Apple might not like to chance it on Sprint's network.

Lastly, there's T-Mobile: like Sprint, an also-ran in the U.S. mobile space. T-Mobile also has the strongest ties with Google (GOOG)'s Android operating system. It's a GSM network, so Apple would not have to redesign its phones for compatibility. So T-Mobile would be the most likely carrier to match up seamlessly -- except that, like Sprint, its network probably isn't ready for a barrage of iPhone users. And T-Mobile's close relationship with Android probably is considered a real conflict by Apple, which has not expressed great love for Google (or more specifically, Google Voice) of late.

Munster is very often right on the money, This time, I think his prediction is off by a year or two.

Correction: The post originally stated "The revenue-sharing that AT&T has agreed to for the iPhone is a huge component of Apple's big profits from the device. If Apple removes exclusivity, AT&T will surely whack down that revenue-sharing component." AT&T is no longer engaged in revenue sharing with Apple on iPhone subscribers.
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