iPhone Business Model

[Updated following Phone Different Podcast #19, see below!]

Way back in February, Apple's Chief Operating Officer, Tim Cook said:

"We're not married to any business model."

At the time -- and it's scary how long ago it seems already -- the iPhone was only available in the US, UK, Germany, and France, with rumors of Ireland and Austria waiting in the wings. What's more, these were all exclusive deals, with Apple doing their best to lock the iPhone down to single carriers in each territory in exchange for lucrative -- and unprecedented -- revenue-sharing deals that some have estimated could be netting Apple up to $15 per month, per subscriber.

So, with a potential billion dollars on the table, while they weren't married to it, they no doubt felt more than a little lusty.

But in true Apple fashion, invoking perhaps the pirate mantra of old, and embracing the same mindset that has them run iTunes as a near-loss leader, price-cut the iPhone a scant few months in, and offer cheap family upgrade options on their OS and iApps, it looks like Tim Cook was serious.

Read on to find out just how serious he was...

Late April brought rumblings of carrier "discounts" in Europe. Apple claimed carriers could charge what they wanted. Pundits on various sides pointed to clearing stock in the face impending 3G, or desperation to nudge thus-far-disappointing sales.

Then the floodgates opened. Literally. What had been a scant 5 countries with official first generation iPhone deals, became a torrent of announcements, week after week, of dozens upon dozens more. Canada. Australasia. Africa. Latin America. The Middle East. Scandinavia and the Baltics. And more. Double, triple, quadruple, the numbers became near-exponential.

The strange part? Multiple carriers began announcing iPhone deals in the same countries or territories. Vodafone and Telecom Italia both claimed Italy in early May.

Carrier exclusivity was gone.

No doubt at Apple's behest, press releases were short to the point of single sentences at times, all with the promise of more details to follow, but Orange did let slip that there would now be non-exclusive deals (where no carrier had the sole rights to the iPhone and any GSM provider could theoretically support it), and co-exclusivity (where two or more carriers had sole rights and only they could officially support it).

Orange didn't stop there either. Rumor has it they are now calling up existing iPhone customers and offering them €50 upgrade paths to the next generation iPhone 3G. Talk about a subsidy!

So why, with so much money at stake -- and let's face it, cachet -- are Tim Cook's words suddenly ringing so loudly?

Steve Jobs has said that one of Apple's greatest failings during his absence was that other leadership chose to grab for money rather than grow market share. And Steve Jobs is known to think about products and positioning years into the future.

Our own Dieter Bohn has teased some of his thoughts on this, and promises to follow up on the next Phone Different Podcast. Don't miss it.

UPDATE: Dieter, having brainstormed with another one of our writers, Chad Garrett, is offering the following: Given the massive amount of carriers now announced for the iPhone 3G, managing activation via iTunes may get a lot tricker... unless Apple offers the iPhone unlocked, and iTunes simply provides a way to connect to one of the established carriers in exchange for a subsidy, or -- dream of all dreams -- lets you keep running unlocked if you're willing to forgo said subsidy. How's that for a new business model?

For my part, I'll mention this again:

Apple is alone among modern technology companies in enjoying near spherical integration. They make the iPhone hardware. They develop its software. They provide .Mac services. They market pro-level content creation tools. They own the high-end computer market that runs those -- and the developer -- tools. They sell content via the #1 music retailer in the US, iTunes. They have a toe in the accessory business with a headset, docks, cables, etc. They license 3rd party accessories. They get revenue sharing on subscriptions from current carriers. They are about to launch an App Store, getting a cut of commercial sales in exchange for putting product in front of every single iPhone user on the planet. They have an international online store, and their growing chain of retail Apple Stores make more per square foot than Tiffany's.

So, unlike many others who have to survive on platform licenses, hardware margins, service contracts, or any other single or small number of profit streams, Apple can choose to take hits in multiple streams (like revenue sharing) and still earn money hand over fist in many, many others.

In short, Apple isn't married to any specific business model because they can afford not to be. And come WWDC in June, and the long expected iPhone 3G announcement with it, Apple's plans may just result in a windfall for consumers as well...