In spite of its stellar looks and features, a lot of pundits have taken a ho-hum attitude to the release of Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL ) latest iPhone because the company didn't offer a model with the one feature that they were clamoring for the most: Support for Verizon's (NYSE: VZ ) EV-DO 3G network, if not also Sprint's (NYSE: S ) . Considering how much money Apple is leaving on the table by sticking solely with AT&T (NYSE: T ) , this jaded response makes a lot of sense ... if you think that iPhone sales stop at America's borders. Take a more international view of things, and the iPhone 4 begins to look like a bigger deal -- one that could seriously extend Apple's high-end smartphone leadership over Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG ) Android in other wealthy countries.
The iPhone's international success
With a series of popular Android devices now gracing store shelves for Verizon (the Motorola (NYSE: MOT ) Droid and HTC Incredible), Sprint (the HTC EVO), and T-Mobile (the MyTouch 3G), and with research firm NPD estimating that Android phone sales surpassed iPhone sales in the U.S. in the first quarter, it's easy to think that Google has finally pulled even in its smartphone duel with Apple. But overseas, it's a whole different story. Mobile advertising firm AdMob (recently acquired by Google) estimated that while the iPhone had a modest edge over Android in phones being used within the U.S. in April (10.7 million to 8.7 million), it towered over Android elsewhere (16.7 million devices to a mere 2.9 million).
With the exception of China, Android just hasn't caught on in big overseas markets the way it has in the U.S. This is partly because it hasn't found carriers willing to lavish it with the kind of attention that it's received from Verizon and T-Mobile. And it's also because Apple, for the most part, hasn't been bogged down by the kind of exclusivity agreement it signed with AT&T. With the iPhone on an even footing in terms of carrier support, its competitive strengths -- a "first mover" advantage, an unmatched app base, iTunes, and the iPhone user interface -- have been enough to keep Google from gaining much ground, leaving it free to gobble market share from the likes of Nokia (NYSE: NOK ) .
Why iPhone 4 delivers
And that's why the improvements delivered by iPhone 4 are a very big deal in overseas markets. The specs on the device -- dual cameras, a gyroscope, Apple's A4 processor, superb battery life, and a ridiculously high-resolution display -- put the new iPhone's hardware in a league of its own, at a time when Android is just beginning to make its presence felt in places like Western Europe and Japan. Throw in iPhone 4's software improvements, and Steve Jobs' latest creation will probably keep Google in also-ran status in many developed nations for at least another year.
In less wealthy countries, the story might be a little different. The iPhone's steep price tag limits its sales in these places to pockets of affluent subscribers. And that opens the door for cheaper Android phones to make headway with the masses -- as is already the case in China.
But as Apple's most recent earnings showed, the iPhone's price hasn't stopped international sales from growing like wildfire. Based on my rough calculations, Apple sold over $3.6 billion worth of iPhones outside of the U.S. in the quarter, compared with about $1.6 billion of them inside of the country. And with a new model on the way that looks like the gold standard for high-end smartphones, and no pesky AT&T exclusivity deals to get in the way, the iPhone's international sales growth is just getting warmed up.