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Apple may debut low-cost iPhone for emerging markets in 2013

Our poorer pals = potentially 'billions of customers'

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Apple has made a name for itself by marketing high-end gadgets to affluent, design-conscious consumers, but it could be planning a move down-market as early as this year, if industry scuttlebutt proves correct.

On Tuesday, Taiwanese tech news outlet DigiTimes was the first to report on rumors that Apple may be readying a new, lower-cost iPhone model. And while we here at El Reg have found that outfit's track record for prognostication spotty at best, no less than The Wall Street Journal has lent additional credence to the idea, citing "people briefed on the matter."

According to DigiTimes, the new iPhone model will be primarily aimed at China and other emerging markets, where Cupertino's flashy kit hasn't fared nearly as well as it has in the US and Europe.

Apple launched its current iPhone 5 in China in December, and while sales were solid, they were hardly phenomenal. Chinese customers snapped up 2 million of the fruity phones in three days, but in a country of 1.3 billion people, that's less than 1 per cent market penetration.

By comparison, when Apple launched the iPhone 5 in the US and Europe, it shifted 5 million units on its opening weekend.

Meanwhile, the Chinese mobile phone market is awash with all manner of cheap kit from the likes of Huawei, Samsung, and ZTE, which could make it difficult for Cupertino to gain a stronger foothold if it doesn't adjust its strategy accordingly.

As for just how Apple plans to cut down the price of its much-beloved mobes, however – with the lowest-end iPhone 5 models currently retailing for $649/£529, without subsidies – opinions differ.

One likely possibility is that Apple will replace the iPhone 5's anodized aluminum body with something cheaper to manufacture, such as polycarbonate plastic.

Others suggest that Samsung's new, entry-level Snapdragon chipsets could help keep costs down. Then again, though, the more Apple reuses from its previous designs, the fewer R&D costs it incurs.

Oddly, one source claimed that the new iPhone actually has a larger screen than earlier models – they've seen it with their own eyes, honest! – in keeping with the emerging trend of 5-inch screens for high-end phones. But then, we thought this was supposed to be a low-end phone? Well, that's how it goes with rumors.

One thing is for sure: If Apple ships a secondary, low-cost iPhone model in 2013, it will be a break with tradition. So far, Cupertino has only launched one iPhone model at a time, and although it tends to keep the earlier generation on the market as a nod to more cost-sensitive buyers, each new iPhone is generally meant to obsolete the previous one.

None of the tongues wagging about a lower-priced iPhone were able to give any concrete information on when it might ship, and as The Wall Street Journal notes, Apple may yet scrap the idea.

If it does move forward, however, it should do so soon, as Apple is hardly the only company with its eye on mobile markets in the developing world. Intel announced a reference platform for budget smartphones at CES this week, and the Mozilla Foundation is planning a major push into emerging markets with its Firefox OS, citing the "billions" of consumers who are expected to come online for the first time in coming years.

Those are billions of customers Apple can't afford to pass up. ®

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