For years, Apple's been told its products were too expensive - and prospered mightily. Today, many suggest Apple should launch a low-cost iPhone. Will history repeat itself, or have the rules of the Smartphone Wars changed in ways that will force Apple to alter its strategy? 

Dismissing the prospect of a Low Cost iPhone isn't all that difficult. Just look at Apple's history. For years, the high tech pundits have hectored Apple for it's inability to see the wisdom of the cheap. In the late eighties and into the nineties, they insisted that a low cost Mac was the only way the company could survive against the swarm of PC clones. Steve Jobs returned and righted the Apple ship, no LC Mac required.

A decade later, the netbook was cast as the killer torpedo that would sink the resurgent Mac business. Jobs famously dismissed the netbook as a cheap plastic device Apple would never stoop to make: "We don't know how to build a sub-$500 computer that is not a piece of junk."

At the September 2012 iPhone 5 launch, Tim Cook announced that the MacBook is the #1 selling notebook in the US (5:30 into this video). Couple that with the success of the iPad, and the netbook is dead. And thus, by analogy, there will be no iPhone LC. Apple doesn't do cheap. The company will focus on a premium customer experience and enjoy a high profit margin. The race to the bottom will be left to Android clones. Move along, nothing to see.

Not so fast.

Using Apple's history -- and particularly the sorry netbook story -- to dismiss the iPhone LC makes questionable assumptions. As Marx (Karl, not Groucho) liked to say: 'History doesn't repeat itself, it stutters'. Smartphones aren't PCs, only smaller; the rules of the Macintosh game don't apply to the iPhone. The Smartphone Wars are waged by markedly different laws, and are waged well by Google and Samsung, unencumbered by a PC past.

But let's back up: What would a Low Cost iPhone look like, whom would it serve, and just how "low" is Low? The easiest way to picture the thing is to drag out your old iPhone 3G or 3GS. A plastic body, an "original-resolution" screen (no Retina here), a slow processor and even slower wireless connection. It's not today's iPhone 5, with its metal body, lovingly machined chamfers, Gorilla Glass, high-speed A6 processor, and 5 megapixel camera.

The phone would serve the prepaid market, it addresses customers with little or no credit. Everything is paid for with cash up front: You pay the full, unsubsidized price for the phone and you buy "minutes" (let's call them units of wireless network utilization) in advance. Buying units for these devices is a simpler experience than I imagined: Go to the neighborhood drugstore, pick out a phone card by a (virtual) carrier such as TracFone, and the cash register prints an activation code you then enter into the phone. Simple, pervasive, and very successful -- even in a "rich" country such as the US.

So far, Apple has avoided the prepaid approach. When we give $199 to Verizon for a $650 iPhone, the $450 subsidy is an act of faith by the wireless carrier. The philanthropic organization assumes we'll pay our bill every month for two years, by which time the carrier has recouped the subsidy. This is the postpaid world that Apple understands.

As for the pricetag, let's assume that an iPhone LC would cost about $100 to manufacture -- that's half the cost of the basic iPhone 5. If we apply a 60% margin percentage -- the same as today's iPhone 5 -- the unsubsidized iPhone LC would sell for $299.

That's too high. Let's try lower numbers: 50% margin gets us down to $199; 30% to $149. To get to the magic $99 unsubsidized retail, with an un-Apple 30% margin, the iPhone LC would need to be manufactured for less than $75, about one third of today's iPhone 5.

And even $99 may not be low enough. Go to Amazon and look for prepaid cell phones. The first models start at $6.99 (not recommended, I tried one at $8.99 for my visiting Mother-in-Law, that was a mistake). Real smartphones running Android 2.2 start at $49.99 - today! For another $10 you get 2.3. The $80.73 Kyocera Rise runs the much more modern 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) version. (I checked prepaid prices in other countries and the situation is similar.)

In his earnings release conference calls, Tim Cook constantly refers to Apple's interest in the vast prepaid market segment but so far it's been all talk. The reason for the gap between words and deeds sits in plain view on Amazon's prepaid cell phone page. As more devices enter the market, we can only imagine what the page will look like a year from now.

The prepaid market, without carrier subsidies, is already in a PC-like race to the bottom. For Apple to enter and prosper in this segment, it has to determine two things: What sort of premium can it get for a low cost iPhone, and what would the device mean for the rest of the product line?

Apple execs are fond of saying they'd cannibalize their products themselves rather than let competitors do it. Even if exquisitely executed and priced just so, it's hard not to see the (putative) iPhone LC as the augur of a new era of lower Apple margins. In other words, the iPhone LC wouldn't be born of a tactical decision to add a new set of customers, it would be a strategic move that signals a new phase in the Smartphone Wars.

Apple loves to control the game. So do Google, Microsoft, Samsung, and everyone else, of course, but Apple's love is an unusually intense, deeply seated drive that stems from Steve Jobs' own (carnal as opposed to deliberate) need to master and direct every aspect of the game.

In the PC business, Jobs pushed vertical integration down beyond hardware and software, and into its retail chain of Apple Stores, thus ensuring a tightly controlled delivery of the product experience. The same applied to the iPod and its integration with iTunes. The well-controlled media delivery and novel micro-payment system was a huge win: In 2006 iPod revenue outpaced the Macintosh line.

The iPhone started with Apple fully in control. AT&T stood aside and let Apple run the table, handle all aspects of the customer experience (except for call quality). Later, the App Store extended Apple's control of the game. The iPhone became an app phone and a phenomenal success.

(We also have the counterexample of Apple TV, an exception that proves the rule. TV content owners, distributors, and carriers haven't let the Cupertino company seize control of the customer experience, and thus Apple TV remains a "hobby".)

Apple is still in control of its iPhone ecosystem… but things have changed. Now the company faces Google and Samsung. Google isn't just Android, it's also a provider of a wide set of services such a Google Maps, Gmail, Google Docs and Drive, Google Voice, and on and on. Samsung is more vertically integrated, makes its own smartphones components, and spends more marketing money ($13B last year) than anyone else.

In today's smartphone scene, can Apple still enjoy the control -- and the ensuing profit potential -- it craves? And if not, how will it react? Tactics or strategy?

-- JLG@mondaynote.com

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