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The iPhone Versus the iPhone

After nearly four years, AT&T has lost its exclusivity on Apple’s iPhone. It has been a great run. Now AT&T faces the formidable competition of Verizon, who started offering the iPhone in February of 2011. Market shares are about to shift. Let’s look at how they might change.

Market shares among established customers shift for one of two reasons. (See “Audio Tip #40: The Components of Market Share Change” on StrategyStreet.com.) First, a competitor may “win” market share by offering a benefit that more than half of the market suppliers do not offer. On the other hand, market share may shift away from a competitor if it “fails” its customer relationship and opens that relationship to other competitors. A company “fails” a customer relationship when it refuses, or is unable, to offer something that half the other competitors in the market can or will offer.

AT&T garnered much of its share gain over the last four years with a “win.” That “win” was due to its exclusive offering of the Apple iPhone. While it won business with the iPhone, it developed a reputation for problems in the quality of its services. iPhone users tended to overwhelm the AT&T network and cause interruptions and dropped phone calls. AT&T’s customer service has been suspect as well. Still, its market share has grown with the iPhone, primarily at the expense of the smaller carriers. Its market share growth due to the exclusive on the iPhone offset its “failures” in its network and customer service.

Now Verizon enters with its own version of the iPhone. Today, any customer who wants an iPhone can choose either the largest competitor in the market, Verizon, or the second largest competitor, AT&T as his or her carrier. So, Verizon can “win” market share against the smaller competitors as well. These competitors, such as Sprint, Virgin Mobile and others like them, do not offer the iPhone and are unlikely to do so soon.

Verizon should also be able to gain share at the expense of AT&T. Here’s how. iPhone-using customers who are dissatisfied with their current service with AT&T now have a viable, high quality competitor offering an equivalent service with the same phone. Some of these customers will leave AT&T because they perceive that AT&T’s services are not up to the standard of the other competitors, especially Verizon’s, and migrate to Verizon. This is a phenomenon we call “flight to quality.” This “flight to quality” is also an example of a “weak win,” where a competitor gains share only after an incumbent supplier has “failed” the customer relationship.

This “flight to quality” is unlikely to be dramatic. A company can “win” share quickly with a unique Function. On the other hand, a “flight to quality” usually brings share gains in dribs and drabs. It produces share gains slowly, over time, because of inertia in the customer relationships. This inertia allows AT&T time to get its house in order before it suffers a great deal of customer immigration. (See “Video #36: Probable Priorities for Innovation in Hostile Markets” on StrategyStreet.com.)

Posted 2/7/11

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