Several analysts view with skepticism the idea that Apple would jump into the competitive business of selling mobile voice and data services directly to its vast base of loyal iPhone and iPad customers.
"I don't believe that the probability of this happening is high or realistic," said wireless analyst Chetan Sharma, the president of a management consulting and strategic advisory firm. "The service business margins are quite different and it doesn't make sense for Apple to get into the business."
Michael Morgan, senior analyst for mobile devices with ABI Research, is highly skeptical that Apple has a good reason to become a full-fledged wireless carrier like the giant U.S. carriers that package its iPhones with data plans.
"To me you are not a wireless carrier until you own spectrum," Morgan told us.
Would Apple buy rights to airwaves? "I highly doubt it," the analyst said, noting that spectrum auctions are infrequent and "ungodly expensive."
Whitey Bluestein, a wireless industry strategist, recently predicted that Apple would soon begin providing mobile-phone services directly to its huge customer base and commence its wireless journey by offering mobile-data plans that are bundled with iPads.
Morgan viewed that step as a logical one for Apple, reasoning that the consumer electronics giant might have better success than the U.S. carriers bundling data services with iPads. Unlike the case with iPhones, many consumers today aren't buying data packages with iPads because they are using the tablet for Wi-Fi connectivity rather than a cellular connection, the analyst said.
"When you have that situation, that means operators aren't going to have much success trying to subsidize the devices," he said.
If Apple wanted to sell data services directly to its iPad customers, it likely would have to buy data capacity from the very carriers that now sell its devices because Apple doesn't own a wireless network. The likes of AT&T and Verizon might perceive such a move as a threat to their businesses, but they would at least have some leverage over Apple since they would set the wholesale prices that Apple would have to pay them.
Bluestein doesn't think Apple will stop at offering mobile-data plans. The former MCI Communications executive predicts Apple eventually will provide voice, data and messaging plans directly to its iPhone customers on an a la carte basis, reflecting an alternative to their current mobile operator.
Carl Howe, vice president of Yankee Group's Consumer Research group, acknowledges Apple could become a so-called mobile virtual network operator or MVNO.
"This is not technically hard to do," he said. "But I think they'd have to think long and hard about whether they would want to alienate their carrier customers who have done quite a lot of work with them selling their products by creating their own service."
**Editor's Note: Click here to take our poll on whether you think Apple will get into the wireless network biz.**