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Wednesday, December 09, 2009, 12:20 pm PT (03:20 pm ET)

Piper: Apple's next big iPhone feature is likely Verizon

While some investors have expressed concern that Apple cannot continue its level of innovation attained thus far with the iPhone, one analyst believes the Verizon network will be the "next big feature" for Apple's handset.

Apple can maintain its "rapid pace of innovation," analyst Gene Munster of Piper Jaffray said Wednesday, as it prepares to enter the second chapter of the iPhone story, through software and accessories, as well as the Verizon network. In a note to investors, he said he believes that the platform could see 40 percent growth in the calendar year 2010.

"We continue to believe there is a 70% chance that Apple will launch the iPhone with Verizon in mid-CY10," Munster wrote. "Currently, the iPhone is available to 82m AT&T subs in the U.S.; adding Verizon would more than double the addressable market, adding 89 m U.S. customers."

Munster's 70 percent figure is borrowed from colleague Chris Larsen, Pipe Jaffray's telecom services analyst. He has forecast favorable odds for Apple to align with Verizon and launch a new handset capable with the CDMA network in 2010.

As of late, analysts have been torn on the prospect of the iPhone debuting with Verizon in 2010. Some feel a deal is unlike and too complicated to be hammered out in the next year, viewing T-Mobile and its iPhone-compatible GSM network as a more likely option. But other recent rumors suggest Apple has been in talks with chip maker Qualcomm for a potential new CDMA-compatible iPhone model.

Beyond Verizon, Munster also expects the iPhone to see rapid expansion in the realm of applications and accessories. He believes that the addition of various external accessories that could work with accompanying App Store software, or new built-in features like RFID, could add even more functionality to the device. "We've just scratched the surface," said Munster.

In November, reports surfaced that Apple built new iPhone prototypes with hardware support for sensing RFID chips. Such technology could enable a variety of technologies such as swipe payments, allowing the handset to be used to pay for items at checkout, or to gather information from kiosks or objects.

"The iPhone could feasibly become a full digital wallet, similar to other phone models in select use cases worldwide," he said. "But with Apple, the iPhone, iPod touch and iTunes accounts that each have an associated credit card, is uniquely positioned to make mobile payment a reality in the U.S. While limitations still exist in terms of payment receipt terminals at gas stations, restaurants, public transit facilities, etc., we believe that over the next several years Apple will extend the iPhone's functionality with a widely available mobile payment platform."

Tuesday, Munster issued a note stating that a recent drop in Apple's stock price is no cause for concern. As such, Piper Jaffray has remained bullish on the technology company, and has maintained its price target of $277.