Verizon iPhone May Not Change the Market as Much as Many Think

Last Updated Aug 16, 2010 4:43 PM EDT

Trying to follow a market to plan your own strategy -- the best customer channels, the smartest alignments -- it tough in any industry. The practice is particularly hard in high tech, and something to drive you mad in mobile. In the last week, one event and study after another questioned whether Apple (AAPL) iPhone users were the real data hogs, if Google (GOOG) could survive the onslaught if Verizon (VZ) got the iPhone, and whether AT&T (T) would see a significant number of customers walk away.

Part of the problem is pulling together the indicators and determining which are sound. For example, it seems fairly clear that Android shipments have been outpacing devices running iOS -- at least, if you trust the 200,000-Android-activations-a-day figure from Google. Apple's iPhone shipments are part of its public numbers, and Android is simply growing faster than iOS.

That actually makes sense. Look at the difficulties that Apple has had meeting demand for iPad and iPhone 4 units. It hasn't even been able to produce the white handsets yet. At one point, I thought that Apple was being coy and trying to drive the sense of exclusivity -- and that may have been true. Once. However, the company has run up against its inability to satisfy the number of potential customers. Apple and its partners have been unable to manufacture and ship enough products to satisfy customers -- and given the ground that Google has made up, there's no way at this point that outages are a PR maneuver. As experts have told me in the past, losing a few weeks in shipping consumer electronics products can translate into double-digit percentage losses of potential margin dollars.

The next question is whether Verizon will get the iPhone. It was clear back in March that this would be inevitable. Apple wants to dominate the smartphone market the way it did MP3 players. So long as Verizon doesn't have access to iPhones, Apple enormously cuts the potential number of customers it can address and, essentially, hands them to Google or someone else. And there's been enough anecdotal evidence that Apple will prepare a CDMA-version phone -- which means Verizon -- that I think it's only a matter of short time before AT&T's exclusive grip on the iPhone in the U.S. is over.

Finally, we get to how consumers will react with the shift. A number of sites have pointed to a Morspace research report that claims the following:

  1. about 23 percent of current AT&T customers would be "somewhat/very likely" to get an iPhone from Verizon.
  2. 47 percent of current AT&T iPhone owners would consider a Verizon iPhone
  3. over a third of current AT&T iPhone owners are waiting for Verizon to get the iPhone before upgrading
  4. over half of current Verizon customers and "somewhat/very likely to purchase an iPhone" from Verizon
A number of publications, particularly those like MacDailyNews, which are strongly pro-Apple, have reported this as Google's Android nightmare: More than half of all Verizon subscribers want an Apple iPhone. I have to disagree with the interpretation for a number of reasons:
  • Asking people what they will or will not do in the future, or the conditions under which they will do something or other, is one of the least reliable types of market research questions. That's because people don't really know what they'll do, so reality often diverges widely from prediction.
  • Notice the phrasing of the data label: somewhat/very likely. If it had been very likely/definitely certain, then maybe the point would be valid. But somewhat likely? That's just saying that potential smartphone buyers would consider an iPhone. It also assumes that all U.S. consumers are currently prospects for buying smartphones. Unfortunately, the company doesn't indicate what portion said very likely and what portion said somewhat. That's too gross a categorization and it might be that there would be a similar number for Android handsets. (Did the company even ask?)
  • Morpace says that the results are based on surveys taken by 1,000 consumers online. Was this a self-selected group? Is it really representative of the four carriers mentioned? Morpace doesn't provide enough details to tell.
  • Apple already has trouble getting enough products to people. What happens if the potential audience suddenly jumps? That won't make the operations go any more smoothly or factory productivity increase. Chances are, Apple will end up rationing iPhones to both AT&T and Verizon, determining in advance how many it should dedicate, as the different radio technologies in use would prevent Apple from shifting units from one of the carriers to the other.
  • Carriers still have people tied up with service contracts. Eventually consumers do get freed up, but inertia is a powerful force.
Limit supply and tie people's hands over service contracts and you're back to many consumers refusing to wait, which all of the Android vendors jointly push the ability to satisfy demand. Android will still have the advantage in supply and availability, as I don't see Apple allowing anyone else to manufacture an iPhone in the near future.


Image: Flickr user feedpeoplenotdumpsters, CC 2.0.d
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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.