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The strategic tension inherent in the iPhone franchise

I don’t write product reviews and I don’t pass judgement on individual products but I do own and test various products. For example I have the Android powered Samsung Galaxy 5 (GT-I5500) and the experience is, in my opinion, better than for recent Symbian phones but not as smooth as for Apple’s products.

But that’s not what this article is about.

It’s about the price. The price for the Samsung is one third that of the iPhone 4 (both devices unlocked and sold in Europe with a 23% VAT). It was also purchased in a department store with as much hassle as buying a pair of gloves.

When it comes to the product, it may be a fair trade-off: one third the price for one third the product. The specs are not only worse but the whole experience is rougher and cruder. But that “one third the product” may be just good enough for a large population of users who are now satisfied even with “one tenth the product”. The price point should be evaluated as a valid threat.

But Apple can respond. It’s not like this is asymmetric competition. As the iPod shows, Apple can make money with low end products. Easily. Is this entry price point (€200 unlocked) something Apple should cover? My answer would be an unqualified yes.

For operator distribution, the subsidized price combined with a high-end offering is by far the best marketing mix (price, promotion, positioning, etc.) However, for non-operator distribution, a lower spec unlocked device sold through tens of thousands of points of purchase (like the iPod, and soon, iPad) makes a lot of sense from a platform point of view.

These two channels are often in conflict due to subsidy and exclusivity clauses. This conflict makes the decision to ignore the non-operator channel compelling. The economics for the operator channel are always going to trump the non-operator channel. But as the platform expands across geographies and income segments not covered by the operator-subsidized channel, these populations will need to be addressed.

So this is the inherent strategic tension for the iPhone franchise: Whether to use the iPhone brand to enable ubiquitous mobile computing outside operator channels, or use iPod/iPad as a complementary but separate brand to engage in an orthogonal attack.

I suspect the decision has been made. We will observe the consequences next year.