: A series of recent trademark filings by Apple Computer is stoking speculation that the firm may be ready to leap ahead with plans to combine its popular iPod music player with its own mobile phone. Earlier this month, Apple filed four trademark applications for the term "Mobile Me," covering a broad array of possibilities, including "digital music," "cellular" and "telecommunications." The move would make sense for Apple, whose popular line of iPod music player is facing competition from a bevy of music-playing cell phones.
This wouldn't be Apple's first foray into the cell phone business. In September, Apple joined with Motorola and Cingular on the Rokr music phone, which ran Apple's iTunes software. But criticism from analysts about the meager capacity of 100 songs led some to question whether Apple is gearing up to release a true iPod phone or perhaps start its own niche mobile phone carrier.
In recent months, analysts have questioned whether Apple deliberately hampered the Rokr's storage capacity to protect its popular iPod line of music players, make way for an iPod phone or possibly roll out its own mobile phone service that includes a robust music phone. Apple representatives declined to comment on the speculation.
In a research note, analysts Albert Lin and Shaw Wu of American Technology Research said Apple appears to be extending its iTunes and Mac product lines into new areas, including phones and mobile content services. They speculated that Apple could be looking to beef up its partnership with Motorola for future iTunes phones like the Rokr, or it could in fact be preparing to start its own phone network.
"Apple has long been rumored to be a (niche phone carrier) candidate. We believe this would be a successful strategy, given the type of content and markets Apple has had success in. ... We believe additional branding for services coming to the market would heavily involve wireless downloading of content to maximize sales and meet customer expectations for ease of use," they wrote.
The barriers are low for companies seeking to become a niche carrier, also known as a mobile virtual network operator.
A niche carrier, such as ESPN, buys wholesale minutes from established carriers like Sprint, Verizon and Cingular and sells personalized devices, such as branded cell phones, and services. In some scenarios, niche carriers who rely on back-end business providers, like San Francisco's Visage, to handle billing and customer service can get off the ground for a few million dollars.
But some analysts like Julie Ask, research director and senior analyst for Jupiter Research, said it's unlikely Apple will stray from its roots. She said the company will probably release its own iPod phone rather than take the larger step of creating a mobile phone operator.
"Apple sells hardware and software. They don't have an existing subscriber base like cable companies, and they don't have content like ESPN that people have an affinity to," said Ask.
Copies of Apple's trademark filings can be found at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's Web site, at www.uspto.gov/main/trademarks.htm.