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Tuesday, March 31, 2009, 12:00 pm PT (03:00 pm ET)

Report: two distinct iPhone models nearing production

A little-known equity research firm is out with a new report this week which could potentially shed some color on recent discoveries in Apple's iPhone 3.0 beta software that suggest two architecturally unique iPhones may be in the cards for this spring.

"Our checks confirm that two versions of iPhones will be introduced this year," Lazard Capital Markets semiconductors analyst Daniel Amir wrote in the opening paragraph of the report. "Production of the new phones should start at the beginning of April and will ramp in May."

More specifically, the analyst said both models are likely to be introduced this June, with one representing a "high-end" version and the other a "low-end" version.

But unlike analyst reports earlier this year, which suggested Apple was developing a scaled down iPhone in addition to a new high-end model as part of a volume play, Amir said he believes the two models will target different geographical regions rather than different classes of consumers.

"We believe it is possible that the two phones will be aimed at different regions," he wrote. "The high-end version is expected in North America and Europe, and the low-end version may be for the BRIC countries [Brazil, Russia, India, and China] or China only."

Amir said the high-end version will have video capability, a better camera and 32GB of storage while the low-end version will include less storage, no video functions, and possibly lack Wi-Fi — a move which could potentially cater to the demands of Chinese wireless carriers.

It was reported last fall that China Mobile was asking for Apple to deliver iPhones with both Wi-Fi and 3G disabled. However, Apple has thus far failed to reach an agreement to deliver the iPhone to China with China Mobile and is more recently reported to have been seen at the bargaining table with the carrier's smaller rival, China Unicom.

Assuming there's some truth to Amir's report, it could possibly explain why references to two distinct iPhone models were recently uncovered in the first external beta of iPhone Software 3.0, namely "iPhone 2,1" and "iPhone 3,1."

Apple makes changes to the first numeral in these kind of identifier strings to distinguish products from their predecessors or family members only when there's a significant architectural difference between the two. Despite some cosmetic changes, the original iPhone and iPhone 3G were largely based on the same component architecture, and are thus identified by the strings "iPhone 1,1" and iPhone 1,2."

As part of his report this week, Amir also told clients that iPhone shipments for the first calendar quarter of the year ending tomorrow could come in as high as 4 million thanks to record shipments for the month of March.

"Our checks suggest that March iPhone shipments have been much stronger than previously expected and may reach 1.5 million units, which is the highest level over the past five months," he said. "Total iPhone shipments in [first quarter of 2009] are therefore tracking slightly higher than Street expectations of 3-3.5 million units and could reach 3.8 to 4 million units."

Based on a similar round of checks, the analyst said second quarter shipments could surge as high as 8 million units, a range well above Street expectations. This would reportedly include 5 million of the current iPhone 3G models that would be sold between the months of April and June.

"April shipments, including both the current and new versions of the iPhone, could increase 40%-50% month-over-month, and be up another 20%-30% month-over-month in May," he wrote. "Accounting for the new versions of the iPhone shipping in April, total iPhone shipments in [the second quarter] could reach 7-8 million units, which equates to approximately 3-4 times last year’s shipments during the same period."

Amir provided no explanation on how he believes Apple will manage to sell 5 million existing iPhone 3Gs in the three-month period when consumers are likely to delay their smartphone purchases in anticipation of new iPhone models.