Apple Still Elusive on AT&T iPhone Exclusivity - TheStreet

Apple Still Elusive on AT&T iPhone Exclusivity

Apple court documents from 2008 have reopened the debate about the Verizon-iPhone courtship.
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NEW YORK (

TheStreet

) -- Stale information has reheated fresh speculation around

Apple's

(AAPL) - Get Report

next iPhone move.

As always,

Verizon

(VZ) - Get Report

and the prospects of a

Verizon iPhone

help intensify the curiosity factor surrounding Apple's superphone. And it has taken only a little spark, courtesy of

Engadget

, to get the sizzle going again.

Apple iPhone

The latest round of ruminations is based on info that dates back a couple years.

In a 2008 court document,

Apple refuted charges

brought in a

class action lawsuit

, saying its exclusive iPhone sales deal with

AT&T

(T) - Get Report

wasn't secret or monopolistic. In its defense, Apple cited a 2007

USA Today

story that reported

AT&T and Apple had an exclusive five year sales contract

. Thus, the secret was quite public by Apple's estimation and hardly the work of conspiring monopolists.

The problem, however, is that the actual terms of the iPhone exclusivity contract have never been published. And it's quite possible that the original deal was supposed to last for as long as five years, subject to annual renewals and performance reviews.

That would explain why

AT&T was set to lose exclusivity in June

. Several people familiar with the companies had confirmed that the deal was over this summer and that Verizon would be the next likely stop for the iPhone.

But in a last-minute reprieve, AT&T extended the contract. It was a surprising development that many attributed to AT&T's sudden willingness to cut the price of its iPad data service plan in half.

Analysts and industry insiders say they now remain completely uncertain about the next move for the iPhone, largely because the situation remains in flux.

Verizon, with its 90 million customers, is a big fat opportunity for Apple. And while Verizon has publicly said it remains open to a deal with Apple, it's entirely possible that the two giants

will never agree to terms

.

In fact, Verizon has entirely revamped its smartphone strategy, embracing

Google's

(GOOG) - Get Report

Android operating system. The effort has produced several Droid phones from

Motorola

(MOT)

and

HTC

, including the

Verizon Incredible

.

The

enhanced Droid performance

has obviously given Verizon a compelling alternative to the iPhone and could be used as significant leverage in negotiations with Apple. This will prove interesting as Verizon prepares for its national 4G LTE service introduction next year. By all conventional logic, Apple would relish a shot at selling a 4G iPhone, with a

big, data-hogging camera

.

More on Apple

Five Products Apple Should Make

But as for the five-year exclusive deal between Apple and AT&T reported three years ago, it seems safe to assume that the original contract has had significant modifications.

AT&T is at least a year behind Verizon on the 4G expansion plan. And with its already-tarnish reputation for network quality, it might take more than price cuts for Apple to stick around another year.

And that's another reason why the Verizon iPhone speculation just won't quit.

--Written by Scott Moritz in New York.

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