The Next iPhone Might Lack Locks

"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages."

-- From As You Like It, by William Shakespeare

Indeed, Willie. And Steve Jobs likes to direct the action whenever possible.

Telecom veteran AT&T (NYSE: T  ) may have dropped hints about Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) plan for the iPhone this summer, based on a report in Fortune. If you buy a next-generation, 3G-capable iPhone with a two-year AT&T Wireless contract, AT&T will take $200 off the sticker price.

Of course, this is still just a rumor, as Apple hasn't even announced a 3G phone yet, but if Fortune's sources turn out to be right, it's a rather audacious grab for market share from old Ma Bell. The discount would not apply if you bought the phone at an Apple store, so the telecom would effectively steal some retail sales from the very partner that supplies the hot product in the first place.

Now, the current iPhone already sells out about as fast as Apple's manufacturing partners can make 'em. We've even seen outright shortages (albeit not as severe as the chronic Nintendo Wii imbalance), which tells me that AT&T shouldn't need to lower prices at all. Any inventory it can get will basically sell, end of story.

Get to the point, already!
Unless, of course, the next iteration would be sold through multiple carriers. If AT&T has to put up with competition from Verizon (NYSE: VZ  ) Wireless, Alltel, Deutsche Telekom's (NYSE: DT  ) T-Mobile, and Sprint Nextel (NYSE: S  ) , well then, the game is on. That would explain any aggressive pricing plans. And while it's mildly bad news for AT&T (a paltry $200 subsidy will be regained in just a few months under the pricey unlimited-data plans), it's great news for the other carriers and for consumers.

Of course, the real winner in this scenario is Apple. I'd call the AT&T-only era a test run, designed to drum up an appetite for the gadget and see how the market responds. Then you turn on the manufacturing faucet at full blast and open up to the entire market. Another brilliant marketing move by Steve Jobs is in the works.

Again, it's all conjecture at this point. But with the Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) Android platform on the horizon and copycat handsets streaming in from all comers, the time seems right for this kind of move. Stay tuned: We'll get the real story in less than two months.

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