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Apple's iPhone installment plan threatens carriers' ties to customers

Gregg Keizer | Sept. 11, 2015
U.S. mobile operators may rue the day they trained customers to buy iPhones on installment, says analyst.

Then Apple waltzed in.

Like Moorhead, Dawson saw Apple's move as an attempt to build stronger ties to customers. Because the program relies on people traipsing to an Apple Store -- or probably to its online mart at some point in the future -- where only iPhones are sold, it eliminates the influence of carriers and their salespeople, who in their stores pitch alternatives, primarily Android devices.

"Apple's locking [customers] into the iPhone so that they don't go anywhere else," Dawson said.

In a follow-up analysis published on Tech.pinions Thursday, Dawson elaborated on the iPhone Upgrade Program.

"In some ways, [this was] the most underestimated announcement Apple made," Dawson wrote. "It's quite possible the carriers have opened the door to a trend that may well come back to bite them."

By opening that door, carriers risk losing some customer patronage and interaction -- the iPhone purchasing part -- which, the argument goes, dilutes the relationship, threatening higher churn rates that in turn would increase carriers' customer acquisition costs. "Customers on the iPhone Upgrade Plan can take their unlocked devices to another carrier whenever they want to," Dawson observed.

Although Dawson is not a financial analyst, he regularly parses technology companies' revenue statements, including those of carriers. He called Apple's installment deal a significant threat to mobile operators. "Longer term, this could put a huge dent in carrier revenue, although not in profit," he said, pointing out that there is little if any profit in selling devices. "It makes you [as a customer] a free agent. You can change carriers month to month, cancel at any time."

It's not all about the customer: Apple would be more than happy to shift the bulk of its customers toward an annual replacement cadence rather than the nearly two-year average now. But Moorhead and Dawson cast it as primarily a way for Apple to wrap itself even more around the customer.

"It makes it a lot easier to stick with Apple," said Moorhead.

"Apple's getting the greater share of the customer relationship," Dawson echoed.

And if that's the case, carriers are getting a lesser share. "They've played right into Apple's hands," Dawson wrote on Tech.pinions. "They might well rue the day they embraced the move away from subsidies."


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