The iPhone’s new business model

June 10, 2008, 11:50 AM UTC

“Twice as fast. Half the price.”

That’s the story about the new iPhone 3G that Apple is selling, and it’s a line that was echoed by Apple VPs and industry analysts in the Moscone West spin room after Steve Jobs’ keynote Monday.

“The new price point is a very big deal,” said Tim Bajarin of Creative Strategies. “With that, and the 70 countries, Apple is now a world player on the mobile smartphone stage.”

But it’s not that simple. There were a lot of financial details Jobs left out of his keynote that only emerged later in the day, in a 8-K form Apple (AAPL) filed with the SEC and a long press release issued by AT&T (T).

Apple alerted the SEC that although it had signed deals with 70 countries…

“…Under the vast majority of these agreements, Apple will not receive follow-on revenue generating payments from carriers”

AT&T, for its part, warned investors of…

“…potential dilution to earnings per share (EPS) from this initiative in the $0.10 to $0.12 range this year and next.”

What does it mean?

It means the iPhone has a new business model.

When the device was first introduced, Jobs was able to dictate some rather unusual terms. Customers had to pay full retail price for it (a practice almost unheard of in the mobile phone industry) and carriers had to share a sizable cut of their monthly revenue with the manufacturer (also virtually unprecedented).

Now, the carriers are subsidizing the cost of the phone, making up for it in monthly charges, and they are no longer funneling a share of that monthly revenue to Apple. As Piper Jaffray’s Gene Munster puts it: “Apple is basically playing by the rules that all other cell phone hardware manufacturers play by.”

Pressed for specifics, Munster speculates that AT&T is paying Apple about $400 for the 8GB iPhone and keeping $199 of that. It probably pays Apple about $450 for the 16GB model, he says, and keeps $299. [Update: in a note to clients Tuesday Munster came up with a slightly higher number. He now estimates that Apple is charging carriers, on average, $466 per iPhone. Toni Sacconaghi at Bernstein Research comes in with a range that goes even higher; he believes Apple will sell the new iPhones to carriers for anywhere from $350 to $700 each.]

This is a big change. Gone is that nice revenue sharing deal where Apple socked it away as deferred income over the life of a 24-month contract — a comfortable cushion against lean quarters in the company’s future, should they ever arise.

Gone too is the nice iPhone bonanza AT&T got upfront last summer by selling all those 8GB iPhones for $599 each (minus a small commission, perhaps $80, to Apple).

But don’t cry for AT&T. As its press release made clear, it’s going to make up for that by raising the $20 monthly fee customers pay for unlimited data services to $30. That works out to $240 extra over the life of a two-year contract.

“Half the price,” it turns out, actually costs customers $40 more.

But most people look only at the purchase price when they buy cell phones, and at $199 for the 8GB model, the iPhone is going look a whole lot more affordable to a lot more people. Munster, for one, believes that Apple will more than make up in volume what it’s losing in revenue sharing.

Munster had predicted that Apple would sell 12 million iPhones in 2008, beating its own 10 million target by 20%. With the new price point, he says, 12 million “should be a lay-up.”

And what about his famous prediction that Apple will sell 45 million iPhones in 2009 — a number that he acknowledges is “way ahead of the Street”? Munster is not raising that target, but admits he’s “increasingly comfortable” with it.