Apple Inc. (AAPL): Is It Too Good For A Low-Cost iPhone?

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Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) has taken a lot of flak for the price of the iPhone 5C. It just isn’t the low-price masterpiece everyone was looking for. It doesn’t address the low-end of the smartphone market. And the complaints go on and on. But what if Apple still has plans to launch a truly low-cost handset?

Apple Inc. (AAPL): Is It Too Good For A Low-Cost iPhone?

In this week’s report to investors, Bernstein analysts question whether the company is “philosophically opposed to a low-priced phone” or whether everyone got “head-faked.”

Is Apple a luxury brand?

Analysts Toni Sacconaghi, Hr., Jonathan Cofsky and Eric C. Garfunkel say it’s possible Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) considers itself to be a luxury brand similar to Porsche and Bentley. This would mean that it is “philosophically opposed” to offering a less expensive handset. They point to evidence that seems to suggest though that Apple does not see it in this way.

For example, CEO Tim Cook has said in the past that the company is “not just for rich people.” Also the company sees the iPhone as more like the iPod than the Mac in terms of selling it. In addition, Apple management has expressed the importance of the Chinese market. As a result, Bernstein analysts believe that the company will end up developing a less expensive iPhone targeted at emerging markets.

They said the fact that Apple hasn’t already done this could mean that the company just can’t develop a low-cost iPhone that it is “proud of.” Another possibility is that it is so focused on gross margin percentage rather than dollars and “is philosophically obdurate about abandoning its luxury positioning in the market.”

Was last week just a “head-fake” from Apple?

The analysts also question whether last week’s unveiling was nothing but a “head-fake” for investors. They said perhaps the timing for the low-cost model just wasn’t right and that maybe waiting “several months” would make more sense. This week a new rumor popped up that Apple was planning another big event for Oct. 15, although that event could be focused on new iPads or other products rather than a truly low-cost iPhone.

For example, they suggest that the distribution agreement between Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) and China Mobile might not be fully set just yet even though they both probably want to start selling the device before Chinese New Year starts at the end of January. In addition, production capacity is probably going to be more constrained over the next few months, particularly because Apple has added two new handsets instead of the usual one.

Third, launching a lower-priced iPhone later could make the seasonality that’s part of current iPhone product cycles a little bit easier. And finally, putting off the launch of a less expensive iPhone 4C, as they call it, would make it possible for “Apple to skim higher price, higher margin customers” with the more expensive offering.

What low-cost expectations have done to Apple shares

The Bernstein analysts suggest that only two months ago, investors weren’t widely anticipating either a low-cost iPhone or the addition of major carriers. They believe this is why Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL)’s shares were trading at between $400 and $450 a share. Then as expectations increased before the announcement of the handsets, so did the company’s stock price.

But now both have gone back down, which they said leaves them with “the same investment case” they had two months ago. They believe that investors who buy Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) must believe that it can “innovate and create incremental, new market opportunities for itself,” which they still believe the company can do. They continue to rate Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) as Outperform with a $600 per share target price.

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