The biggest news from Apple's announcement of its new iPhone 6s and 6s Plus phones yesterday was not the phones themselves, which largely conformed to the leaked specifications that had been circulating for weeks, but rather Apple's decision to launch its own equipment installment plan to let customers pay for the devices directly from Apple. The new program should worry carriers because it makes them much less relevant to consumers, enhances Apple's relationship with customers at their expense and could be a step toward Apple cutting out carriers entirely.
Apple is likely going to unveil its newest iPhones tomorrow, expected to be called the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus, and every major U.S. carrier will likely announce plans to carry the phones. However, for the first time since the iPhone was introduced in 2007, U.S. operators will be favoring equipment installment plans and leasing over two-year contracts, potentially creating a conundrum for both Apple and the carriers.
U.S. wireless carriers will eventually shift to smartphone leasing and away from equipment installment plans, according to analysts at Macquarie Capital. Further, they think the operators could get a boost in leasing by partnering with Apple, which would stand to benefit from a move to leasing.
Apple, Samsung Electronics and other makers of high-end smartphones could face steeper hurdles in the Chinese market after operators there said they will cut the amount of money they pay to OEMs to subsidize smartphones. According to Bloomberg, the payment cuts could amount to around $3.9 billion.
Enrollment in smartphone upgrade plans among U.S. consumers has more than quadrupled since September 2013, going from 7 to 31 percent by the end of the first quarter of 2014, according to a new report from the NPD Group. The report is yet another data point indicating a major shift in how Americans pay for their cell phones.
AT&T Mobility forecasted sharply higher postpaid subscriber additions for the second quarter than it had in the year-ago period, and also said it expects more customers than ever before to buy smartphones via its Next handset upgrade program.
Verizon Wireless made changes to its Edge handset upgrade program that require customers to pay off 60 percent of a device's costs before upgrading, up from 50 percent before. The changes come as analysts are predicting that more devices will be financed in the U.S. in 2014 than previously expected.
Sprint wholesale partner nTelos Wireless felt that it needed to follow larger carriers by offering a device installment plan, but the company intends to make its offering compelling in terms of price and value, according to an nTelos executive.
Sprint wholesale partner nTelos Wireless plans to launch an equipment installment plan later this summer similar to offerings from larger carriers, but the financial and competitive impact of the launch is still not clear.
The shift away from the traditional U.S. model of a subsidized smartphone in exchange for a two-year contract appears to be accelerating and is likely going to continue to do so for the next few quarters. However, the shift might not be in the best interests of carriers, handset makers or consumers in the long run.