IDC: What the white iPhone really means for Apple iPhone owners

Ramon Llamas is a senior research analyst with IDC's Mobile Devices Technology and Trends team.Last week marked the arrival of the long-awaited and much-anticipated white iPhone 4 at Apple, AT&T and Verizon Wireless stores. The launch happened following a series of false starts, including an original launch last June that was pushed to July, as well as a cancelled pre-sale in October. No official word has come out as to reasons behind the delay, but many have speculated that the shade of white had to be just right, or that the antenna 'burned' a mark through the white casing, or that light penetrated through the glass back and affected the insides, or that reflections from the casing interfered with taking pictures. Regardless, Apple seems confident now that the pigment and the materials are ready for prime time.

But it raises the question: How to make an iconic device even more iconic?

Someone asked me, "So it's the same as the iPhone 4 that's out there now, just a new color, right? Same operating system, same mobile applications available, same network connectivity, same FaceTime, same Retina display. So what's the big deal?" Great question. The white iPhone 4 is, when you get down to it, the same as the original iPhone, just in a different color. But among iPhone owners, both current and potential, the white iPhone means much more than that. To start, let's acknowledge that the iPhone is an iconic device. For many smartphone users, it is the first smartphone that comes to mind when the word "smartphone" is mentioned. Every year, Apple fanboys and fangirls line up at their nearest Apple store or iPhone-offering carrier to own the latest model. Critics have used words like "sexy" and "sleek" to describe its design. The iPhone has helped popularize touchscreens, Wi-Fi, and mobile applications while staying true to its DNA of simple design, for both hardware and software. Other smartphone vendors have taken their cue from Apple as a result.  Apple's iPhone has helped elevate the profile of smartphones across the industry.

From an end-user perspective, owning an iPhone is the ultimate in conspicuous consumption. It is the device to see and to be seen with. Essentially, owning an iPhone not only has its technological benefits, but its social benefits as well. No wonder so many smartphone owners have flocked to it. Just look at the numbers recently posted by AT&T and Verizon Wireless. In their quarterly earnings, AT&T announced that the majority of its post-paid smartphone subscribers use an iPhone, and Verizon Wireless confirmed activation of 2.2 million iPhone 4 devices to its network in the first two months of availability.

But with millions of smartphone owners brandishing an iPhone, standing out has become more and more of a challenge. Having an iPhone is simply not enough. It's better to have an iPhone that stands out from the other iPhones. No longer is the stance, "You can have any color iPhone 4 that you want, as long as it's black." Will it spur massive switchovers from current iPhone owners? To the 2.2 million new iPhone owners at Verizon Wireless and the 3.6 million recently connected iPhone owners at AT&T, such a changeover will seem too soon. Perhaps the most devout Apple fanboys and fangirls who view each incarnation of the iPhone as a must-have device will be among the first to purchase it. But as more subscribers reach the end of their contract with each passing month, expect white iPhones to gain more popularity.

Other colors on Apple's color palette?

Will Apple's iPhones live only in a black and white world moving forward? Since Apple just released the white iPhone, an iPhone available in other colors may be the last thing on anyone's minds. But consider this: when Apple launched its iPod nano, itself a very successful device, in 2008, the company made it available in nine different colors:

Would you buy an iPhone in one of these colors? You might.

It's another point of differentiation to appeal to more potential users, and adds a bit more of personalization beyond the standard black and white.

One can argue that I'm comparing iPhones to iPods, black and white versus the colors of the rainbow, and that user and owner experience varies between the two. Having an iPod in one of these colors is acceptable since it's worn on a user's hip or inside a pocket, and not held to one's ear. True, but just as other companies have taken their cue from Apple in terms of design, Apple might do the same from other companies. RIM's BlackBerry selection is awash in a range of colors, and Nokia's flagship N8 device, released late last year, was available in a variety of colors as well.

I presented this idea to the same friend who asked me about the white iPhone 4. He looked at me incredulously, as if to say, "Are you kidding? This is Apple!" Agreed, this is Apple we are talking about, one that introduces products in colors that turn heads and delight their owners. But Apple is also one of those companies who can make even the smallest adjustments - this time color - and generate an enthusiastic and sustainable response almost immediately.

How often does that happen?

Ramon Llamas is a senior research analyst with IDC's Mobile Devices Technology and Trends team. In his role, Llamas tracks the quarterly results of the leading and emerging mobile device vendors, and uses the data to forecast the short-term and long-term direction of the mobile device market, and how it affects handset vendors, carriers and customers. He recently released his worldwide mobile phone and smartphone 2010 - 2014 forecasts, as well as a worldwide forecast of the mobile phone touchscreen market. In addition to being featured in FierceWireless, Llamas has been featured on Bloomberg Radio, National Public Radio, and quoted in Investor's Business Daily, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. Llamas can be reached at [email protected].