Monday, September 23, 2013

Economics of Apple's iPhone 5C

As the whole world is probably aware of it now, Apple's newest generation of iPhone was released last Friday and quickly sold out across many countries. This morning, the company reported a staggering 9 million units sold of both the 5C and 5S flavors. Very impressive for any company but, especially for Apple, it demonstrates that despite all the competition from Google's Android platform, its own iOS and iPhone devices still command a massive following.

What's interesting about all this is the attention and ridicule at Apple's decision to release a cheaper companion to their flagship iPhone. For the current (seventh?) generation, this means the iPhone 5C. The general opinion was that without a cheaper version of the flagship iPhone, Apple would be surrendering a significant portion of the market to Android handset makers like HTC and Samsung. After all, the $650 unsubsidized price for a top-of-the-line iPhone is beyond what most of the world's population can afford. One popular rationale is that the letter "C" in the "5C" represents China, a country in which iPhones have unsupported by its carriers until recently. In short, not pursuing this lower-tier market segment is akin to throwing away good money -- something unacceptable to any rational corporate executive.

Returning to the topic of the new iPhones (5S and 5C), let's review the differences between the two. The infographic below from CNET does an excellent job of comparing the two. In short, the 5C is akin to the previous generation with the exception of being a bit cheaper, lower build quality (e.g. more plastics involved) and available in different colors. Essentially Apple rebranded the previous iPhone 5 into an iPhone 5C, and released an upgraded version known as the iPhone 5S. Nothing too confusing, right?

As an economist, my insight on this strategy of releasing a lower-tier device to go along with a flagship device is simply: it's a very shrewd business decision. People, be them technology critics or the general populace, may whine and scorn Apple's decision to release the iPhone 5C, but they overlook the behavioral element that Apple is targeting.

In economics, this behavior is known as "relatively". One of my favorite economists, Dan Ariely, presented the case so well in his book "Predicably Irrational". Relativity refers to the human tendency to compare their environment or a good relative to another. However, the caveat is that we prefer to compare things that are easily comparable. Ariely first observed this phenomenon in an advertisement to subscribe to the magazine "The Economist", when he was presented with 3 different subscription options: a standalone mailed copy, a standalone online copy, or both a mailed and online copies. I forget the exact number he reported, but the last option was presented as much cheaper than the first two combined. The result is that "The Economist" probably sold the combination option much higher than the first two. (There's also a really good example about honeymoon options from the Wikipedia link above.) The bottom line is, when one is presented with comparable products but one is clearly superior, the superior product tends to get purchased.

Do you see why Apple released the iPhone 5C now? I get that its cheaper price allows greater market penetration than otherwise, but the iPhone 5C also indirectly (yet very effectively) promotes the purchase of the iPhone 5S. This is especially given that the 5S is only $100 more and provides essentially double the performance of the 5C. When your average consumer is presented with the choices of, say, a Samsung GS4, an iPhone 5C, and an iPhone 5S, the 5S would probably win out. Curiosity, it also dissuades any current iPhone users from jumping the ship. Apple ultimately may not move as many units of 5C but the company still wins in the end, regardless. And as the late Steve Jobs puts it so well, "If you don't cannibalize yourself, someone else will".

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