Apple Shares Spike on Erroneous iPhone Rumor

Shares of Apple Inc. (AAPL) hit a new all-time trading high Tuesday after an analyst speculated that the company would come out with a less expensive, smaller iPhone later this year.

Yet investors also were being cautioned Tuesday by a separate — more sobering — report from a different analyst at the same securities firm, saying he could not confirm his colleague's assumptions.

He told his clients in a report that a low-end phone from Apple was unlikely in the near term.

Apple spokeswoman Natalie Kerris declined to comment on the dueling Wall Street reports.

"We don't comment on rumors or speculation," she said.

Apple shares traded as high as $134.50 Tuesday morning, eclipsing a previous 52-week high of $133.34 set Friday. They closed at $132.35, up $2.02, or 1.5 percent.

The Cupertino, Calif.-based company's stock had already skyrocketed roughly 40 percent in the months preceding its June 29 release of the iPhone. The iPhone combines a cell phone, media player and wireless Internet device, and retails for $499 to $599.

Many analysts have predicted Apple would introduce future versions at lower price points, and a patent filing that was disclosed by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office last Thursday further fueled the rumor mill.

The patent application, filed in November, describes a multifunctional handheld device with a circular touch pad displaying illuminated symbols that could change depending on the mode in use.

Drawings in the filing show an iPod-like device with a scroll wheel resembling a rotary phone dial.

Apple enthusiast Web sites quickly offered up their interpretation: an iPhone Nano.

J.P. Morgan analyst Kevin Chang said in a note to clients that was widely publicized late Monday that the patent could lead to a new iPhone that will cost $300 or less.

Unlike the current iPhone, which is controlled by a 3.5-inch widescreen touch screen display, the new model will likely be controlled by a scroll wheel and might have limited functionality, Chang wrote.

"We believe it's a strong sign that Apple could potentially convert every iPod nano into a nano phone," he wrote, referring to the company's popular flash memory-based music player.

The Nano currently sells for $199 to $249, depending on the amount of included memory. The Nano and Apple's iPod Shuffle comprise the majority of the estimated 50 million iPods the company sells each year, said Chang, who is based in Taiwan and covers the telecoms suppliers sector for J.P. Morgan.

Chang said there's "a decent chance" that Apple would accept operator subsidies for a cheaper iPhone model, which could sell 30 million to 40 million units in fiscal year 2008.

But Chang's colleague, Bill Shope in New York, who has covered Apple for J.P. Morgan since 2003, offered a different view in a note issued Tuesday.

Though a lower-priced iPhone is inevitable, a near-term launch of one would be "unusual and highly risky," he wrote.

"Not all consumers want a combined phone and music player, so Apple is likely to keep the iPhone and iPod as distinct business segments for as long as this makes economic sense," he said.

Shope, who has a neutral rating on Apple and thinks the Wall Street consensus for Apple's earnings are "too aggressive," said Chang's projections for iPhone sales did not change his own financial estimates for the company.

A spokesman for J.P. Morgan said "it's not unusual" for two analysts to have "slightly different views" since they cover different tech sectors.

Despite investors' enthusiasm, not every patent filing indicates the development of an actual product either, emphasized Jay Sandvos, a patent attorney and partner at the Boston-based law firm of Bromberg & Sunstein LLP.

Many of Apple's rivals are emulating the style of the iPod click wheel, he said, so "it makes sense to seek patent protection for every possible aspect of such a device whether or not Apple actually plans to use it — just to prevent competitors from doing something along these lines."

Public speculation about Apple's patents also have proven to be wrong in the past.

Apple has set a target of selling 10 million iPhones worldwide by 2008, gaining roughly a 1 percent share of the cell phone market. The gadget is expected to go on sale in Europe later this year and in Asia in 2008.