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UK iPhone price cut boosts confidence in June 3G launch

A 100 pound price cut on Apple's 8GB iPhone in the UK, confirmed by wireless carrier O2 on Wednesday, is the latest bit of anecdotal evidence to hint towards near-term release of a redesigned 3G model, according to one Wall Street analyst.

The 37 percent cut arrives on the heels of a 75 percent reduction of the same model in Germany, suggesting that Apple's European wireless partners are draining inventory of the 2.5G mobile handsets, which have been met with lackluster demand in the region, Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster told clients in a research note.

The price cuts, both of which end in June, "set the stage for the release of a new iPhone" that same month, he said.

In recent weeks, the analyst has polled over 60 stateside Apple retail stores on their supply of both the 8GB and 16GB iPhone models to compare inventories with those in Europe. Initially, his first two rounds of 20-store checks (1, 2) found close to no iPhones within the company's retail channel. However, a most recent 22-store check found that over 80 percent maintained limited supply of 8GB models and 50 percent had 16GB models on hand.

"We conclude that Apple is likely pacing its remaining supply of phones by trickling units into its retail channel until the new model is released," Munster said. "While limited availability of iPhones would put downward pressure on iPhone units in the June quarter, we believe it would be more than offset by the price cuts in Europe and the launch of a new model in [the month of] June."

Come June, the analyst sees a 3G model with a "redesigned exterior" fetching between $349 and $399. He believes the widely anticipate update will be the first and only significant change to Apple's handset offerings before the company begins a model expansion coupled with aggressive price reductions early next year.

"We believe Apple will follow the release of the 3G iPhone in June with the addition of one or two more models by early 2009. The most likely timing of these lower priced, third-generation iPhones is Macworld 09," Munster wrote.

"While Apple may try to debut a cheaper iPhone ahead of the 2008 holiday shopping season, we do not believe this scenario is likely. It is more likely that Apple will simply increase the capacities of the 3G models to 16GB and 32GB ahead of the holidays, simultaneous with new iPods and release the third-gen iPhones after the holidays in early 2009."

The end result, according to the analyst and his supply chain contacts in the Far East, is that come January, the Cupertino-based company will showcase "an entire family" of handsets. The move would mirror the slow diversification of the iPod family, which over its years entered new price points with each new model that was brought to the table.

As such, Munster continues to believe the inflection point in iPhone sales won't come until 2009 when cheaper iPhones are widely available.

"Specifically, we believe Apple will also introduce an iPhone between $200 and $300 in early 2009," he told clients. "We are modeling for iPhone average selling price to drop from $489 in 2007 to $365 in 2008 to $314 in 2009. This price drop, along with the continued international expansion of the iPhone, is critical to our iPhone unit estimate of 45 million [unit sales] in 2009."

Munster maintained his Buy rating and $250 price target on shares of Apple.