LAS VEGAS--All of a sudden, it has gotten a lot harder to find an iPhone.
A few weeks ago, New York iPhone shoppers noticed that Apple's Manhattan retail stores were running low on iPhones. Gene Munster of Piper Jaffray, during an intermission in his three-part series on why Apple is the coolest ever, called up 20 different Apple stores across the U.S. and confirmed that the shortage extends nationwide. Apple's online store reports a five- to seven-day wait on iPhone shipments.
There's usually a couple of reasons for a product shortage. One, demand is outstripping the ability of a company to supply the product. That's probably not the case here, since Apple's had no problems supplying iPhone demand since the inital weekend it went on sale, and there's no indication that demand has spiked in the last couple of weeks. Apple did announce the iPhone 2.0 software in early March, which might have pushed a few people over the edge, but the software itself won't be available until June.
Two, a glitch somewhere in manufacturing or the supply chain is screwing up distribution. Munster assigns a 20 percent likelihood to this possibility; there might be a problem with the touch screen or other sensitive piece of equipment that hasn't come to light yet.
The third reason is that the company is intentionally clearing inventory ahead of a new product launch. This happens all the time in technology; in Apple's case, we saw it just before the launch of new MacBook Pros in late February. Munster gave this possibility an 80 percent chance of being the cause behind the shortages.
The 3G version of the iPhone is what everyone is waiting for, and the inventory problems might be an indication that it's just around the corner. There have been scattered reports of a 3G model arriving anywhere from May to September (Personally, I'm betting on a September iPod/3G iPhone event, if anybody wants that action), but if the inventory problems are really related to the pending launch, that means it could be here a lot sooner.
One potential roadblock with this theory? The Federal Communications Commission has to approve all mobile phones sold in the U.S., and they tend to leak the results of their testing on their Web site. Apple CEO Steve Jobs said that was one of the reasons Apple announced the original iPhone in January of 2007, before launching it in June.
So, if Apple really were gearing up for a 3G iPhone launch soon, perhaps by June's Worldwide Developers Conference or the release of the iPhone 2.0 software, it's either going to have to announce that model, or let a gadget-hungry public discover it first. However, the problem with announcing it first and shipping it later is that iPhone sales could screech to a halt in the weeks, or maybe months, until the 3G model is ready.
What's a marketing executive to do?