Parsing the iPhone rumors: When will the new ones come?

August 2, 2007, 8:28 AM UTC

There’s no shortage of rumor out there about when Apple (AAPL) will release new iPhones, and what they’ll look like. Even though the phone/iPod/Internet device came out just five weeks ago to rave reviews, overeager investors have been trading on seemingly opposing rumors that the phone is either

(a) A disappointment, with production cuts coming, or

(b) A hit, with retooled models coming.

My own bet is that both are overreactions. Here’s why:

Apple has established certain patterns for its product roll-outs, and has proven its methods work through the continued success of the iPod. Its methods are smart in that they keep Apple’s profit margins high, and they bring forth new products only when there’s profit to be made.

Based on that track record, I think it’s most likely that there won’t be a noticeably different iPhone design or a dramatically lower price in the near future. Why?

1. Apple doesn’t like undercutting itself. On its earnings call last month, Apple noted that the iPhone is selling well, customer satisfaction is high, and buyers in the first few days tended to buy the 8-gigabyte version ($600) more than the 4-gigabyte version ($500). When you have one of the hottest consumer electronics products on the planet and you’re heading into the lucrative second half of the year, it’s not a time to confuse buyers by muddling your product lineup. Apple knows this.

2. Component supplies are too tight. Apple also said during its earnings call that it expects its profit margins to suffer this quarter because of the rising cost of parts it uses in its products. One of the clear culprits is NAND flash memory, which Apple uses for storage in its iPods and iPhones. (Flash memory maker SanDisk (SNDK) confirmed during its earnings call that flash prices are firming up.) If Apple were to release new, cheaper iPhones in an environment where flash is getting pricier, it would be a double-whammy to Apple’s profit margins. And again, when early buyers were snapping up the more expensive iPhone anyway, that wouldn’t make much sense.

3. The time for a pre-Christmas update is September/October. I know all the hype makes it seem like the iPhone has been out for six months, but the truth is, it’s been around for less than 40 days. That’s practically nothing. If Apple wanted to have enough new iPhone models in the channel for the holiday season, it would have to introduce them next month, or in October at the latest. Apple just accomplished the impressive feat of stocking the channel with enough iPhones for a record-breaking launch, and it would have to put itself through a logistical nightmare all over again to refresh the line this fast. Not likely.

There is one possibility I can see for a minor iPhone update in the near-term: Apple could kill off the 4GB model and roll out a 20GB iPhone to stoke sales. In that scenario, it could drop the price of the 8GB iPhone by $50 to $550, and charge $650 for the 20GB phone. That would preserve Apple’s margins while also goosing things a little bit – and it would fit the pattern Apple has established with its iPod updates. (UPDATE 8/3: I consider this scenario much less likely now that a Samsung power outage is raising fears of a painful flash shortage.)

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