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My investing philosophy mostly centers around the Value discipline and GARP- Growth at a Reasonable Price. This blog includes commentary on market conditions as well as fundamental analysis of specific companies. Graduated from Rhodes College with a degree in Business with concentration in Finance & Marketing. Currently working on obtaining the CFA designation. Previously worked in Mortgage Trading for a major bank. Use MS Excel extensively for developing investment models, notably valuation models based on DCF methods.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Apple Inc (AAPL): Examining the Prospects of a Low-Cost iPhone

Apple Inc (nasd:AAPL) For some time, many have speculated about an arrival of a $99 iPhone. Some analysts expect a low-cost model with scaled back features, such as 2.5G instead of 3G, no GPS, and possibly a smaller form factor. While I believe a lower iPhone price point is possible, I don’t expect Apple to go backwards by removing features that reduce device functionality to achieve a lower-cost offering. The price of the handset is much less significant than the lifetime cost of the required $30/month data plan. Therefore, crippling device functionality to lower handset price makes no sense when the primary cost component is the data plan.

I believe if Apple were to pursue reducing the price of the iPhone to the consumer, it should first explore offering alternative pricing that doesn’t necessarily lower selling price and margins. Offering cheaper data plans that coincide with less usage would allow consumers to be able to pay according to usage, rather than being required to pay for unlimited when their usage is actually quite limited. Carriers would apply less subsidy and charge more for the handset, yet consumers would still save over the life of the contract. Carriers would still benefit from increased demand even though ARPU may not be quite as high. Carriers could capture the iPod touch demand that arrises from those who wish to avoid the required data plan.

Low-Cost Model With Less Features- Unlikely:
While unit demand increased dramatically from previous price reductions, ($599 - $399, $399 - $199), I don’t expect unit demand to be nearly as responsive to a $100 price reduction, from $199 to $99. At this price level, demand elasticity begins to evaporate, as consumers are less responsive to further price cuts. At $199, the iPhone is competitively priced, opposed to when it was priced out of the market at $599. The bulk of the pick-up in demand from cutting handset price has already been realized.

Reducing hardware cost is another challenge. Eliminating or scaling back certain features through cheaper or fewer components won’t significantly impact build costs. The obvious modifications that many have cited are removing GPS, 3G baseband, and installing less flash memory for media storage. These actions would likely only lower component cost by $15-$20. Additional cost reductions could be brought about with a smaller form factor, however the savings wouldn’t be great enough to offset the burdens it would create on the software development side.

Perhaps the most crucial aspect is it’s the cost of the service plan, not handset, that is the most costly. The iPhone requires signing a 2-year contract for the $30/month smartphone data plan. Over the life of the agreement, this amounts to $720. For those who currently have a $15/month data plan for a non-smartphone device, the incremental difference over 24 months is $360. However, AT&T offers a bundled unlimited text & data plan for non-smartphone devices for $30/month, instead of $35/month ($15 data + $20 text), which raises the monthly price difference to $20, or $480 over 2 year contract for those affected customers. AT&T subscribers who use a smartphone other than the iPhone wouldn’t pay more since the price of the data plan is the same as the iPhone.

Lowering the iPhone handset price by $100 accomplishes little in the sense of affordability due to the $720 24-month cost of the required data plan. I frequently track online discussion forums (such as AT&T iPhone support) as an informal survey tool. The amount of discussion regarding the iPhone handset price pales in comparison to the required data plan. People tend not to have any problem with the $199 price, but are very vocal about the recurring $30/month for the data plan. In fact, there have been a couple individuals who weren’t adverse to pay $399 since they weren’t eligible for an upgrade, but were inquiring if there were a way to circumvent the data plan requirement. There is little evidence suggesting a $100 price drop will have a profound impact due to the large number of consumers who find the data plan requirement inhibitory.

Reducing the data plan fee, or eliminating the requirement altogether, would have the most substantial impact on demand. The problem with this alternative is that Apple receives a ~$400 subsidy based the higher ARPU generated by the data plan. Therefore, if the iPhone ARPU were to decrease from reducing the price of the data plan, then the iPhone subsidy would decrease as well.

Assuming that hardware costs can be reduced by $50, and the subsidy falls to $200 from $400, gross margin would decline to 33% from 58%. In order for earnings to increase, unit volume would have to rise by a factor of 3.5x.

Assuming a more generous subsidy of $250, perhaps with required $10/month plan, gross margin would only fall to $43%, but volume would have to increase more than 2.3x.

A scenario where a $20/month data plan produces a $300 subsidy, gross margin would only drop 800 bps to 50%, and volume would only have to rise 75% to be cash flow neutral. However, consumers still face an incremental $480 increase from the data plan, which will limit the impact on demand.

Even if the economics of reducing hardware and service costs were to make sense, there are other issues. Crippling device functionality takes away from the user experience, which is the primary focus of Apple products. Substituting 2.5G would significantly worsen web browsing and video streaming.

The tests I have been conducting show iPhone 3G data speeds are currently 7-8x faster than 2.5G. In the months following the 3G iPhone release, speeds were only 2-3x faster than EDGE. Obviously, AT&T has made substantial progress in improving its network, which significantly enhances the iPhone user experience. With many competing devices beginning to offer 3G, a slower iPhone might damage consumer perception and lessen its appeal. The iPhone is designed for heavy internet usage, thus a much slower connection would dramatically lessen the iPhone experience. This move would probably only save $5-$10 in hardware costs.

Removing GPS would only save ~$5 in component costs as iSuppli lists the price of the GPS radio at $3.60, and the impact on user experience would be considerable. Many apps are designed around the user’s current location, which requires GPS to obtain an accurate position. The integration of location services with other iPhone features is a major factor that differentiates the iPhone from other devices. Therefore, without any real cost benefit, offering a model without GPS makes no sense.

Altering the form-factor is another alternative for reducing costs. A smaller device could reduce hardware costs to a degree, yet it would require a relatively large size reduction to meaningfully affect hardware cost. This would pose several challenges. Apps are developed for a specific display size, thus duplicate versions may be required to accommodate different displays. The challenge may be further exacerbated due to input commands being handled by the multi-touch display. Therefore, modification may be needed not just for output, but input as well. In addition, a smaller viewing area would reduce the user experience, and a smaller area for input commands may cause navigation to suffer. To achieve meaningful savings, the handset size would have to be reduced to a point at which the user experience would highly suffer.

I don’t believe there should be any change to the iPhone hardware since potential cost savings are rather insignificant. The only exception would be offering 2.5G models in markets where 3G is unavailable as long as it were accompanied by a cheaper data plan. This might help spur demand in non-3G markets where consumers must pay $30 for 3G service and aren’t even able to take advantage of the faster speed.

Possible Alternatives:
The best course of action would be to offer multiple data plan choices, and adjust the handset price accordingly by applying less subsidy. The consumer would have to pay more on the front-end, yet would save money over the 24 month agreement. A cheaper data plan results in less handset subsidy which would be absorbed by the consumer. Thus, it wouldn’t affect the economics of the iPhone with respect to Apple, yet it would provide flexibility for consumers. If a particular individual plans to use very little data, then he/she could select a cheaper plan with less data usage included. They would pay more for the handset, but would still save money over 2 years from the cheaper monthly cost of the data plan. The savings will come at the expense of AT&T, yet it’s not a real expense, rather the opportunity cost of not receiving $30/month for the unlimited data plan. However, this could be offset (or overcome) with sufficient increase in demand.

A scenario with a $10/month data plan would raise the handset price to $349, a $150 increase, but reduce lifetime service fees by $480. Including the price increase of the device, net savings over 24 months is $330. A second scenario with a $20/month plan for heavier data usage would increase the iPhone price $100, to $299, but lower service fees $240 over 2 years, resulting in net decrease of $140. If an individual pays the extra $100 for the cheaper $20/month plan, and later decides he/she needs the unlimited data plan, the carrier could offer a $25/month instead of $30/month since $100 was collected on the front-end. If one wanted to switch to a smaller data plan, then the handset discount could be recovered from lowering the monthly fee by less than the full amount.

There is one scenario of a low-cost model that I do think is a possibility. Bernstein Research’s Toni Sacconaghi has broached the idea of an “iPod phone” which makes a lot of sense. The premise is that music is moving onto many basic mobile phones which may pose a threat to iPod sales. The concept of a converged device means that users won’t prefer to carry both a phone and an iPod. For those who don’t want an advanced phone with internet capability, such as the iPhone, but want a media player combined with a basic mobile handset, an “iPod phone” would be a suitable match. Essentially, a iPod classic or nano could be married with a basic mobile device that wouldn’t require a data plan. Possibly, it may offer some “widgets” such as stocks and weather, but not email or internet browsing. The sole purpose would to counter iPod defection from those using their mobile phones more and more as a music player. I don’t foresee such a device anytime soon, however it remains a viable possibility down the road.

I do believe a $99 iPhone is inevitable. However, it wouldn’t be a “low cost” model, rather Apple could offer the current iPhone model for $99 in light of an introduction of new advanced models. I expect new iPhone models to arrive this summer, which will have faster processors, and advanced graphics chips that will allow multiple apps to run simultaneously and video capability. There has been an un substantiated rumor that AT&T might buy back iPhones since current 3G owners would be ineligible for a subsidy on a new iPhone model if one were to come this summer. These phones could be sold for $99 or less. AT&T has been running deals for $99 on refurbished iPhones.

Apple’s iPhone Vision:
Management has stated it doesn’t intend making an iPhone for everybody. Apple says it isn’t interested in selling the most units, but rather committed to being the leader in the market segment it prefers to serve. Comments from Apple contradict many pundits and analysts that claim the firm is limiting the iPhone’s potential by addressing such a small portion of the overall mobile handset market. However, Apple is a company that demonstrates patience. Steve Jobs once said rather than crossing a river to get to someplace else, Apple waits for the other side of the river to come to it. The smartphone market is growing considerably, thus there isn’t much reason to stoop down into the basic handset market that will be contracting.

Disclosure: Long AAPL

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