This column was originally published on August 28th. On August 31st, Apple sent out invites for a September 12th event that's widely expected to feature the unveiling of new iPhones.
For all its zealous attempts to plug leaks, a deluge of iPhone 8 reports from reputable sources have -- assuming they're accurate -- given us a mountain of valuable details about Apple Inc.'s (AAPL) next-gen flagship phone, with perhaps only a handful of noteworthy facts left unaccounted for.
A string of reports arriving in the last five days provide clarity for two lingering questions: Exactly when the iPhone 8 will launch, and how it will be priced. What they spell out goes a long way towards explaining the strong September quarter guidance Apple issued four weeks ago.
Sources tell the Wall Street Journal that Apple plans to unveil three new iPhones -- a new flagship plus two phones that will act as more incremental updates to the iPhone 7 and 7-Plus -- plus a third-gen Apple Watch (it's expected to contain a 4G Intel Corp. (INTC) modem) at its September 12 event.
With shipments of new iPhones typically starting on the second Friday after a launch event, the reports suggest iPhone 8 and 7S models will ship on September 22. This would allow Apple to record revenue from shipped iPhone 8/7S pre-orders, along with a few days worth of in-store sales, during its September quarter.
The WSJ also says Apple has upped iPhone 8 production in recent weeks "and is poised to expand manufacturing from one plant in China to others." Though this disclosure doesn't guarantee that the iPhone 8 won't see supply constraints and extended shipping times early on, it does contrast significantly with earlier reports pointing to major production delays.
The WSJ's report came a few days after one from the New York Times stating the iPhone 8 will be "priced at around $999." A $999 starting price would be $230 above the cost of the iPhone 7-Plus, but only slightly above that of Samsung's just-launched Galaxy Note 8, which is sold by the big-4 U.S. carriers at prices ranging from $930 to $960. And it could mean that iPhone 8 models with higher storage capacities will sell for $1,099 and perhaps $1,199.
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Though traditional phone subsidies have mostly evaporated and quality Android phones with sub-$500 prices are easy to find, high-end smartphone vendors seem quite comfortable raising prices towards the $1,000 range. This speaks volumes about how the smartphone has become the most important consumer electronics purchase for hundreds of millions of consumers, having evolved into into their primary computing and communications device. It also shows how comfortable consumers have gotten paying for costly phones via installment plans.
Between them, the WSJ and NYT's reports show why Apple was comfortable guiding for September quarter revenue of $49 billion to $52 billion -- mostly above a $49.2 billion pre-earnings analyst consensus, and implying 8% sales growth at the midpoint -- even though iPhone 7 demand is believed to have fallen sharply due to iPhone 8 anticipation. From the looks of things, Apple will be recording meaningful iPhone 8 revenue this quarter, and maybe enough to beat an analyst consensus for 47 million quarterly iPhone shipments (up from 46 million a year ago).
Perhaps more importantly, if the NYT's report about iPhone 8 pricing holds up, it could easily spell upside to iPhone average selling price (ASP) estimates. For now, analysts see iPhone ASP rising by $15 annually in the September quarter to $634, and by $27 in the December quarter -- a seasonally strong one for ASPs, due to flagship iPhone launches -- to $722.
If the iPhone 8 features a $999 start price and supply constraints aren't too severe, a December quarter ASP closer to $750 is plausible. And every incremental dollar added to ASP is of course pure gross profit for Apple.
Assuming production volumes are healthy and the iPhone 8 is well-received by consumers, there could also be upside to a consensus for 76 million total December quarter iPhone sales (up from 68 million a year ago). However, this could be offset a bit by a $999 starting price deterring some cost-sensitive consumers.
With Apple having seen fairly subdued iPhone 6S and 7 upgrade cycles, the stage is set for the iPhone 8 to easily drive the strongest upgrade cycle since the iPhone 6. In March, BMO estimated the total iPhone installed base stood at 715 million users as of December 2016, with 487 million owning newly-purchased iPhones and 228 million owning second-hand devices. The firm also estimated that 31% of those owning newly-purchased iPhones will be more than two years removed from a purchase by the time Apple's September iPhone event rolls around.
Apple doesn't disclose the size of its iPhone installed base. However, Tim Cook has mentioned on recent earnings calls that the base continues growing at a "strong double-digit" clip, which is well above recent unit sales growth. In addition to increasing the long-term opportunity for Apple's burgeoning services revenue streams, the installed base growth means Apple has a lot more potential customers to market the iPhone 8 to than one would assume based on quarterly sales figures.
Meanwhile, a July North American survey done by 451 Research found that 52% of consumers looking to buy a new smartphone in the next 90 days plan to buy an iPhone -- that's the highest number recorded by the iPhone since 2010. And a U.S. survey done by ad agency Fluent found 79% of iPhone owners planning to buy another iPhone, and 70% saying they wouldn't even consider buying another vendor's phone. The survey also admittedly found many consumers balking at the idea of paying $1,000 for an iPhone 8, but as Netflix Inc. (NFLX) can vouch, there's often a big difference between what consumers say they'll do in response to a price hike and what they actually end up doing.
Clearly, reports about the iPhone 8's impressive feature set are yielding strong pent-up demand. The phone is expected to feature a curved OLED display, an inductive wireless charging module, glass front and back panels, an infrared sensor enabling in-the-dark face recognition and cameras supporting both improved scene/object-detection and the 3D scanning/modeling of detected objects for later use in augmented reality (AR) apps.
And thanks to the pending launch of iOS 11 and its ARKit platform for building augmented reality apps, there should be quite a few AR-capable apps in the App Store in a few months' time. Though ARKit isn't restricted to the iPhone 8, it could still eventually be a selling point for the phone. That's partly because of how the iPhone 8's unique cameras can enhance AR apps, and partly because it could be a draw for Android users in the market for a new phone. With Alphabet Inc./Google's (GOOGL) Tango AR platform only available on two low-volume devices, ARKit should easily be the world's most popular AR development platform in the near-term.
In addition to Apple, several suppliers should get a big iPhone 8 sales boost -- either because the dollar value of their content is much higher than it was for the iPhone 7, or because they've landed iPhone design wins for the first time. The list includes Taiwanese chipmaker Himax Technologies Inc. (HIMX) and optical component vendors Finisar Corp. (FNSR) and Lumentum Holdings Corp. (LITE) , each of which is believed to have design wins related to the iPhone 8's 3D depth-sensing modules. In addition, Corning Inc. (GLW) and Broadcom Ltd. (AVGO) -- Corning is expected to supply two Gorilla Glass panels instead of one, and Broadcom, which has historically supplied RF and Wi-Fi/Bluetooth chips to Apple, is expected to see both an RF content increase and a wireless charging design win.
Apple's shares are up 1.1% to $161.54 following the WSJ's report, and close to a recent high of $162.51. With shares still trading at pretty moderate multiples, iPhone 8 anticipation could let their big 2017 rally continue in the coming weeks, provided equity markets don't take a swoon. Certainly, the latest reports about the phone don't do anything to temper the hype.
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Editors' pick: Originally published Aug. 28.