Verizon’s smartphone dilemma

December 13, 2010, 11:26 AM UTC

The data that surfaced last week, if accurate, show how badly the carrier needs the iPhone

Click to enlarge. Source: Asymco

Most of the analysts who looked at the Verizon (VZ) sales data that All Things Digital‘s John Paczkowski published Friday picked up his story line: Thanks to Google’s (GOOG) Android, Research in Motion’s (RIMM) BlackBerry has gone, in Paczkowski’s words, “from a flagship to a johnboat.”

But Asymco‘s Horace Dediu has a different take. The sales figures, if they are to be believed, show that Google has let the carrier down.

Despite the explosion of Android phone sales, he suggests, the iPhone has stolen Verizon’s growth and forced it to make a deal with Apple (AAPL) on Steve Jobs’ terms.

This assumes that the data — shown here in Dediu’s color-coded chart — can be believed.

Click to enlarge. Source: Asymco

Because the numbers are so detailed — they show monthly sales by individual vendors with precision down to 1,000 units per month — Dediu initially assumed they must have been leaked. But according to Paczkowski’s source, ITG Investment Research, the firm did not receive “any material non-public information from Verizon or any other company we cover.”  Those numbers, it insists, were based on daily point-of-sale data the company gathers from thousands of wireless retailers.

In any event, what’s striking about the larger chart is how sharply Verizon’s sales fell off after August, when the iPhone 4 became widely available.

Now compare Verizon’s smartphone sales with Apple’s quarterly iPhone sales at AT&T (T), as shown in the smaller chart.

Dediu has looked at the leaked data five different ways, and in a detailed analysis posted Monday he concludes that Verizon had no choice but to cut the deal with Apple that it resisted three years earlier.

“By 2009,” he writes, “Verizon was probably optimistic that they could head off AT&T (and Apple) at the pass. With the vast array of vendor Android roadmaps laid out in front of them they saw a way to stem the flood of defections. I think that optimism dissipated sometime this year and was replaced by a more dreadful prospect than what iPhone presented in 2007.

“It is perhaps coincidental that the rumors of a Verizon deal with Apple seem to have started in earnest right after August. It’s thin, circumstantial evidence, but the only evidence we have to corroborate the data above is that Verizon has been signaling more desperation.

“Reading further into the data, I would say Verizon faced these problems and decided that they had to throw in the towel. Apple may be the devil, but so could be Google. Apple was predictably evil. But Google? The devil you know is perhaps better than the one you can’t predict.”

You can read Dediu’s full analysis here.

[Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter @philiped]