Barcelona blues: Apple reaps most of the cellphone profits

February 27, 2012: 7:24 AM ET

Just in time for this week's Mobile World Congress, a snapshot of where the money goes

Source: Click for the full 3-year chart.

To get a sense of what Apple's (AAPL) competitors are up against in Barcelona this week as they unveil their new mobile phone models for the 2012 season, consider the relative size of the solid color profit (and loss) bars in the chart above.

It's the money shot in a series of eye-opening graphs that the inimitable Horace Dediu posted Monday morning on his Asymco blog.

The first breaks down the cost structure of the iPhone -- from the $6 battery to the $15 Apple pays Foxconn to assemble the device -- and subtracts that total from the phone's $630 average selling price to come up with the most complete explanation I've seen of how Tim Cook manages to realize an operating profit of $330 per phone.

The next three charts -- that last of which I've copied above -- contrast Apple's iPhone operating expenses and profits in each of the past three December quarters to those of its seven largest competitors.

As someone tweeted, one of these is not like the others. Apple continues to suck up most of the world's profit in mobile telephony.

"How is this possible?" Dediu asks.

"The answer to this paradox" he writes, "is in data that is not visible in any of the diagrams above: The largest revenue attached to the iPhone comes into the mobile network operators... In the small but clearly visible US market, being an operator having iPhone exclusivity generates above-average growth and being the only operator to be excluded from the product generates above average subscriber losses.

"It quickly becomes obvious that ranging the iPhone has moved from being an advantage to not doing so becoming a serious disadvantage."

Unfortunately for the also-rans trotting out their new models in Barcelona this week, none of them can make that claim.

UPDATE: I'm reminded of the words of John Strand of Strand Consult, who famously dismissed the iPhone four years ago as "the Paris Hilton of mobile phones" and produced this widely quoted soundbite:

"Our research shows that there is not one single Apple partner in the world among the mobile operators that has increased their overall turnover, profit and market share due to the iPhone."

To hear Strand at his most outrageous, check out the video clip here from the 2009 Mobile World Congress in which he compares the iPhone App Store to "making clothes for dwarfs."

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