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Thursday, June 12, 2008, 08:00 am PT (11:00 am ET)

Apple considering iPhone sales through universities

Apple is mulling a plan that would see the company extend sales of its upcoming iPhone 3G through top universities, and is separately considering a new protection service plan for college students, AppleInsider has learned.

People familiar with the matter say the Cupertino-based company is "intensively" looking into the possibility of allowing on-campus stores and other educational resellers to market the new touch-screen handset to student populations.

The move would initially be carried out at a number of universities where the company maintains large and active accounts, those people say, though a definitive decision is unlikely until after next month when management can fully assess the more critical retail roll-out and new in-store activation process.

Since introducing iPhone last year, Apple has made little effort to expand the distribution footprint for US sales of the handset. The one exception came last year — about a month after the device first went on sale — when there were communications between the company and channel partners about extending sales to regional retail partner Best Buy.

That plan, however, was apparently thrown on the back-burner as Apple quickly discovered the extent to which grey marketers were buying up, unlocking and then reselling the phones, and hence decided to keep distribution limited to AT&T and its own shops.

The iPhone has already become a fixture on a handful of top-tier campuses like Harvard, MIT and Stanford, thanks to a new educational learning initiative pilot initiated last year dubbed 'iPhone University.' Through an extension of its existing iTunes University service, the program sees underclassmen equipped with iPhones with which they can wirelessly download class materials, receive homework alerts, answer in-class surveys and quizzes, get directions to their professors’ offices, and check their meal and account balances.

Increasing the presence of iPhones at universities across the country is just one step towards Apple's much larger goal of helping to reestablish itself as a leader in higher education, where recent progress has seen it overtake rival Dell as the No. 1 supplier of notebook systems and record a new all-time best for quarterly sales throughout the sector.

Apple, which is currently running its most rewarding back-to-school program in company history, has also recently been successful in drawing some added incremental revenue through increased sales of protection services to college students. People familiar with the matter tell AppleInsider the company is particularly proud of a sharp rise in its retail AppleCare attach rates — or the pairing of AppleCare protection plans with new computer sales — to student Mac purchasers, which in some regions have approached 95 percent.

As such, the Mac maker is now also said to be seriously considering a new accidental damage protection plan that would cover repairs should students accidently spill beer on their MacBook's keyboard, throw their MacBook Air under a bus, or whatever.

Whether such a service would be sold separate to AppleCare or branded as premium option under the long-rumored AppleCare Plus moniker is unclear. It would, like existing AppleCare plans, only span three years, people familiar with the discussions say. That's because Apple's internal goal is for students and customers in general to upgrade their Macs every 3 years, and their iPhones and iPods ever 2 years.