Can Apple's shift in schedule for iPhone releases hand an advantage to Samsung in the battle for smartphone domination?
Some analysts think it might. The iPhone continues to be the world's single most popular smartphone, but Apple's South Korean rival has snagged the top spot in global handset sales of its array of devices.
The Waiting Game
One advantage Apple has enjoyed since 2007 is anticipation: Fans expect an updated iPhone every summer and a complete refresh every other year. But that cycle was thrown off last year when the hardware giant released first a CDMA version of the 2010 iPhone 4, followed by the upgraded iPhone 4S in the fall.
This year, we're still waiting for a new iPhone and recent comments by a Verizon Wireless exec suggest it may not arrive until the fourth quarter.
Meanwhile, Samsung has shipped more than 10 million of its flagship Galaxy S III smartphone into the sales channel in less than three months. That's far less than Apple's 35.1 million iPhones in its fiscal second quarter, but it shows a growing fan base for Samsung devices since the previous Galaxy S devices took longer to get to 10 million.
And Samsung's overall device sales in the quarter just concluded were estimated by Juniper Research at 52.1 million, more than Apple's 26 million for the same quarter.
Juniper said Apple will need an innovation on the same scale as its well-received Siri voice data assistant to regain momentum, "particularly if the device retains the 3.5-inch display size, which is now dwarfed by the Galaxy S3 (4.8-inch) and other high-end smartphones."
In a July 24 earnings call, Apple CEO Tim Cook attributed the quarter's lower-than-expected $8.8 billion net profit to "a fall transition," since iPhone fans may be holding out for the new device rather than buying a current model.
Crest and Trough
"Apple launching a new version of iPhone every fall has created a crest and trough pattern of iPhone demand and hence the sales," said Neil Shah, a senior wireless analyst with Strategy Analytics. "With this product introduction cycle, iPhone's demand is peaking between October to March -- a crest -- and then falls sharply during April to September in anticipation of a new iPhone."
That cycle is an opportunity for competitors to advance their top products, Shah told us. In Samsung's case, the company benefits from a "broader portfolio across different price-points. Hence Samsung's huge lead, though temporary, might last for a couple of quarters, namely Q2 and Q3, but will hurt Apple in the long run if it does not get out of this cycle."
Another analyst, Weston Henderek of Current Analysis, said that even with the launch of an iPhone later than usual Apple isn't likely to lose out on customers entering into new two-year plans.
"There are a huge number of iPhone customers who bought the iPhone 4 around two years ago who are now out of contract," Henderek told us. "So the release of the coming iPhone 5 -- or whatever they call it -- should line up well for all the customers who bought the original iPhone 4."