White iPhone 4 matters, especially in China, says analyst

Its arrival would be strongest signal yet that iPhone 5 won't show 'til September

The long-awaited white iPhone 4 is more than just a smartphone of a different color, a Wall Street analyst said today.

"The net is that the white iPhone does matter," said Brian White, an analyst with Ticonderoga Securities.

According to reports by several Apple-centric blogs, including AppleInsider, Apple will start selling the nearly-mythical white smartphone later this week, possibly on Wednesday.

The iPhone 4 in white and black
White and black iPhone 4 models were shown after Apple CEO Steve Jobs unveiled them at last year's Worldwide Developers Conference. (Image: Robert Galbraith / Reuters)

White argued that the new model gives Apple an opportunity to sell the long-delayed iPhone 4 not only to its most loyal customers, but also as a way to further spur sales in its fastest-growing market: China.

"There's a little bit of a gap in the June quarter," said White, talking about the anticipated no-show of a new iPhone until September. "This thing has been delayed so long that it has a certain cachet ... there's never been a white iPhone ... that I can see some people with black iPhones upgrading. And it may attract some people who were on the fence."

The white iPhone's "mystique" -- Apple originally announced the color last June, but quickly acknowledged "challenging" manufacturing issues -- will provide "a bit of a tailwind for iPhone units during the June quarter," said White.

Although White said potential sales of the white iPhone would only be incremental to Apple's numbers, he emphasized the phone's potential in China, the market that contributed approximately 10% of Apple's total revenues during the last six months.

"This will be especially hot in China, where white anything is popular," said White. "White is just a very desirable color there for all kinds of consumer electronics. It goes for both men and women."

Last week during its quarterly earnings call with financial analysts, Apple executives touted huge revenue growth in Greater China, which the company defines as the People's Republic of China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. "We continued to be on a tear in China," said Apple COO Tim Cook, who said iPhone sales were up 250% year-over-year during the first three months of 2011.

The appearance of a white iPhone 4 is also a very strong signal that Apple will push back the launch of what most have dubbed the "iPhone 5" until September.

In White's eyes, it would make no sense for Apple to start selling a white iPhone 4 so close to June or July, the months when the company has debuted new models the last four years, then discard it.

Like most analysts, White has come around to the idea of a September launch of the iPhone 5.

"[A September launch] also gives them more time to ramp up," he said, referring to his bet that Apple will move faster into international markets with the new smartphone than it has in the past.

White just returned from a swing through China and Taiwan, where he spoke to component suppliers in an attempt to gauge the timetable for the next iPhone. "But we got mixed data points," he acknowledged.

The three-month lag may also give Apple the time it needs to build an iPhone able to connect to faster LTE cellular networks, a move White said Apple needed to make to stay competitive with rival handsets powered by Google's Android operating system.

White held to his position even though Cook scorned LTE last week in the earnings call.

"The first generation of LTE chipsets force a lot of design compromises with the handset, and some of those, we are just not willing to make," Cook said.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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