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Will Samsung Copy Apple Again?

By Jamal Carnette, CFA – Feb 1, 2016 at 1:01PM

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Samsung's newest move to copy Apple has nothing to do with phone design.

Source: Samsung.

Samsung (NASDAQOTH: SSNLF) has been known to copy Apple (AAPL -1.51%). For example, last year's Galaxy S6 line was a prime example with the South Korean conglomerate doing a redesign that looked less like prior models and more like Apple's iPhone. If South Korean's Electronic Times is correct, it seems the company will copy Apple again.

In a way, Samsung is forced to copy Apple. Of the biggest changes to the smartphone industry has been the loss of the device subsidy. T-Mobile led the way in 2013 with its Uncarrier program. Every major carrier proceeded to follow suit, with lone holdout AT&T ending subsidies Jan. 8. In place of the up-front subsidy, carriers have issued zero-interest installment plans to help customers avoid large initial payments.

Last year, Apple joined the carriers by adding its own leasing program. The company allows users to space the payments of a new iPhone over 24 months, with the ability to return the unit and lease a newer handset in just 12 months. According to a recent report, Samsung is planning a phone-upgrade program "similar to the one launched by Apple."

Two big reasons to lease your own product
For many would-be consumers paying $700 up front for a new phone is out of the question, and another outlet dedicated to placing product into the hands of consumers should help Apple and Samsung grow revenue. In addition, a direct leasing program allows the smartphone maker to control last-mile advertising instead of relying on an disinterested carrier for sales.

There's a second reason for phone makers to offer  a competing leasing product -- to keep carriers honest. It was always argued that the subsidy was recouped by charging more for monthly service. Now, billing is more reflective of the cost of service; but the decision to can subsidies was made with the carriers' interests in mind -- not smartphone makers.

Right now, the major carriers are essentially offering free financing over a pre-determined term; but without competition, there's nothing stopping these carriers from attempting to profit from phone financing. Self-competition is not guaranteed, as their collective decision to drop device subsidies is more reflective of an oligopolistic decision-making process than a perfectly competitive model.

Will this spark a refresh cycle?
There are two thoughts regarding the device subsidy. On one hand, many think the migration away from subsidies is a good thing, as the ability to obtain a new phone every year outweighs the benefit of the subsidy. In addition, these bulls argue that the total costs are similar, as the subsidy was always paid by end consumers as a part of their consolidated bills.

The other side is less sanguine, as they feel consumers will refresh less often if the cost of the device is separated from the cost of service. Essentially, these bears are arguing a wrinkle on the behavioral finance construct of framing bias, where participants change their decision-making processes based upon how the decision is presented (or framed).

While the jury is still out on the device subsidy, the overall smartphone market is slowing. Recently, Apple reported its first fiscal quarter. While posting record revenue and net income, investors were not pleased with Cupertino as iPhone growth was nonexistent. On a units-sold basis, the company sold only 0.41% more units than in Q1 2015.

Apple was able to post a 1% year-on-year increase in iPhone-related revenue by posting higher average selling prices; but this is not the type of growth Apple's investors are accustomed to, and the stock sold off harshly as a result. In order to increase unit shipments in a mature market, both companies are going to have to lean on a faster refresh cycle.

For both companies, offering direct phone financing is a low-risk way to increase sales. Will work to offset the decrease in first-time smartphone buyers? That's an entirely different question.

Jamal Carnette owns shares of Apple and AT&T. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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