Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) has an answer to the imminent end of subsidized smartphones in the United States.
The company now offers financing on unlocked iPhones, allowing customers to buy them with a reasonable monthly payment and no money down. That was an unexpected surprise announced at Apple's September 9 media event where it also rolled out the new iPhone 6s and 6s Plus.
It's a bold strategy where it essentially minimizes its partners. SInce the financed iPhones are being sold unlocked, they can be used on any carrier. That makes picking a service provider simply a question of price and coverage area. It makes every customer a free agent, able to move at will for a better deal.
That could be very good for consumers as it's likely to force pricing down. It's also potentially good for Apple since lower prices dangled at iPhone users makes owning its phone even more enticing.
Going into the financing business should pay off for Apple, but it's by no means a clear-cut decision that consumers should buy their phones directly.
What is Apple doing?
Apple is allowing consumers to buy iPhones directly with a variety of different options. First, people can buy the 16GB iPhone 6s for monthly payments of $27 on a two-year agreement. That brings the total price paid to $648 -- basically the full $649 retail price.
For a little bit more, $32.45 a month for 24 months, customers get not only the phone but Apple Care and the right to trade in the phone every 12 months for a new one. If you elect to do that, you simply turn in your old phone, get a new one, and the two-year financing countdown starts again.
Of course, you'd also have the right to pay off the phone and then own it outright after the 24 monthly installments have been paid.
Is this a good deal?
Apple is essentially offering straight financing with the $27-a-month deal. The more expensive program is basically the same deal with a premium added for Apple Care and the privilege of being able to upgrade. This isn't an awful deal -- it's similar to plans offered by AT&T and Verizon, but it's not the best deal out there on an iPhone.
Both T-Mobile and Sprint offer lease deals on the new iPhone that undercut Apple's price significantly. Sprint will lease customers trading in an older smartphone an iPhone 6s for $15 a month through its iPhone Forever program. The catch here is that's it's a lease and your payments do not build any equity. That may not matter for most customers since the deal also allows you to trade in your handset each year for the latest model. Under that scenario, not owning your phone is not as important.
T-Mobile's deal, under its Jump! On Demand program, is an 18-month lease with a buyout option at the end. Customers pay $20 a month for their phone and have the right to upgrade not once a year but up to three times each year (though pricing could change if they elect to do so).
Why is Apple doing this?
While the company is not offering the cheapest iPhone 6s, it is doing so at the normal retail price in an unlocked version, which can be used with any carrier. Buying from Apple makes more sense than buying from the two higher-priced carriers. It may not be a deal compared to the cheaper options, but it's a fair price with the added attraction of Apple Care, which is a very easy way to get a phone serviced for anyone who lives near an Apple store.
By offering financing, Apple is giving customers the option of a primary relationship with the company, not a carrier. That could up foot traffic in Apple stores and tie customer and brand together even more than they are now.
Offering yearly upgrades at no extra cost also makes it harder for people to leave Apple. If you want a phone made by another manufacturer, you either have to pay off your installment plan or wait. Of course, if Apple keeps releasing a new phone people want every year, it will be able to keep customers on a perpetual renewal cycle.
This is a smart move for Apple and a decent offer -- though not the best one -- for customers.