The basic problem facing Apple is the one facing all handset vendors. Virtually all the unit sales need to go through carriers, because that's how the vast majority of purchases happen. And that's exactly where Apple has left itself vulnerable in the key North American market because it doesn't have a deal with Verizon.
Remember Verizon? That little carrier with somewhat disappointing results last quarter that is trying to muddle along without the iPhone as AT&T grows faster? The company with wireless customers only topping 89 million at the end of September? It has been courting other handset players, and a number of analysts and experts are saying that the new Motorola Droid phone could be seriously hot competition for the iPhone. Google has beefed up Android in the 2.0 release, with Google Maps Navigation being called the first killer app for the platform, even if you get one of the many other Android-based devices that Verizon will be pushing.
Apple can only get so big with just AT&T as its outlet. Simple business basics say that not all AT&T customers will buy iPhones, and not all people who would buy iPhones would do business with AT&T. It becomes a limitation on how big the effort can get and how resolutely Apple can move away from computers and toward a fully consumer electronics play. So it needs other big sources of potential customers, and Verizon is the one that matters here.
There is a price that it will pay. According to analyst Brian Marshall with Broadpoint.AmTech, Apple has likely seen a $450 subsidy from AT&T for being able to sell the iPhone exclusively. No way that stays if Verizon also has the device. (And be sure to check the above link to the AppleInsider piece, paying attention to the graph suggesting that more than 90% of AT&T's postpaid customer net additions also buy the iPhone. Astounding number.)
Granted, with exclusivity out the window in this region, the percentage for AT&T wouldn't be so high, because people who badly want an iPhone will have some choices. But chances are that the total number going for iPhones will be higher. And Marshall suggests that the likely carrier subsidy would still be in the $300 range. So if the volume kicks up enough, Apple will have its cake and eat it too, keeping Verizon from going to war with it and still making some hefty money.
Image via stock.xchng user chidsey, site standard license.