Interesting study on buying behavior and perceptions in the current market environment:

"Would consumers be willing to pay full price for a handset if it meant an end to contracts or possibly more affordable data plans? Not if you look at the latest study conducted by Interpret, which says that the vast majority will fork over between $50 and $150 for their next handset. Smart phone buyers are willing to spend $171 on average, but the bottom line is that carrier subsidies (and all the attendant trappings) arenít going anywhere.

To put these numbers in perspective, itís been reported by the Wall Street Journal and others that AT&T has been paying Apple a $400-a-phone subsidy for each device sold since June of last year. In other words, thereís no chance in hell that consumers would be willing to fork over $600 for an iPhone 3GS.

Interestingly, the BlackBerry Storm had the least amount of perceived value among those surveyed (based on what consumers deemed the most appropriate price to pay). And the iPhone 3GS, Palm Pre and T-Mobile G1 rounded out the top three spots as having the most perceived value.

To get more insight into this study and what it means for smart phone buyers and the wireless industury, we spoke with Interpretís Vice President of Strategy and Analysis, Michael Gartenberg.

How much do consumers care about monthly data fees versus the cost of a device in general, considering that the initial price doesnít take into consideration the total cost of ownership over two years?

MG: It seems that itís not that big an issue to consumers. Itís almost as if they expect the 2-year contract and monthly plan as table stakes. Itís fairly difficult to compare plans apples to apples, so consumers usually either pick their carrier or pick their device and then pick the plan that they can afford best to go with that. But itís a message that some companies like Palm are trying to underscore. If you buy the Pre, over the cost of 2 years youíre going to save quite a bit of money if you go with a different device. That message isnít resonating to consumers, at least not yet.

...Having said that, even at $170, thereís no way that the phone like the iPhone, or the Pre, or the G1, or the Touch Pro 2, could be sold unless thereís carrier subsidies involved. So anyone who says that carrier subsidies are going by the wayside any time in the near future is just wrong. Weíre at the upper limits of what consumers are willing to pay for these devices.

To that point, what are your thoughts on Sprint pricing the Touch Pro 2 at $349? Is anyone going to pay that?

MG: Thatís a niche enthusiast phone; $199 is really the sweet spot. If consumers are willing to spend $170, theyíll probably spring to spend the extra $30 to get the phone that they want, but will they spend an extra $150 or $200? That remains to be seen; weíre seeing $199 as an upper limit right now.

Nokia is talking about the N900, which is an unsubsidized phone coming in at about $870. That just says thereís absolutely no mass market for that device at that price point period.

More here:
Cell Phone Buyers Expect to Pay $111, iPhone 3GS Has Most Value