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Apple CEO Tim Cook. (Apple Photo)

Apple is inching closer to embracing a so-called “Apple Prime” subscription program that investors have speculated about for years, potentially taking a page out of Amazon’s playbook.

As part of the company’s fourth quarter financial update, Apple CEO Tim Cook said Apple Card users will soon be able to finance iPhone purchases over 24 months with 0 percent interest. Plus, they’ll still get 3 percent cash back on the purchase.

This move led to renewed speculation that Apple is laying the groundwork to create a subscription program that would bundle both its hardware and its growing catalog of services. Under such a plan, Apple could offer iPhones via subscription, rather than as individual transactions, and sweeten the pot with other perks to get people to sign up.

When asked by investors about the possibility of selling hardware through subscriptions, Cook didn’t shoot it down. With monthly phone payments, smartphone financing in general is already heading in that direction. Cook cited the Apple Card iPhone financing plan as a step toward more of a hardware-as-a-service model.

“We are cognizant that there are lots of users out there that want a recurring payment like that and the receipt of new products on some standard kind of basis, and we are committed to make that easier to do than perhaps it is today,” Cook said.

Apple is increasingly relying on its services arm to bolster its balance sheets as iPhone revenue continues to decline. The Apple credit card,  Apple TV+ streaming service and Apple Arcade game streaming service are all part of this push.

Overall, Apple beat Wall Street expectations for revenue and profits in the fourth quarter thanks to rapid growth in services and its wearables division, led by the popular AirPods. The company posted earnings of $3.03 per share on $64 billion in revenue in the fourth quarter, up 4 percent and 2 percent, respectively, over the prior year.

Apple stock is up about 2 percent in early trading Thursday.

iPhone sales dropped 10.3 percent year-over-year to $33.4 billion, the fourth straight quarter of annual declines. However, services revenue rose 18 percent to an all-time high of $12.5 billion, off-setting the iPhone decline. The wearables division brought in $6.5 billion, a whopping 54 percent jump over the prior year.

Switching to subscription programs has proven successful for a number of Seattle-area tech heavyweights in recent years. After bringing on former Amazon Web Services executive Adam Selipsky as CEO, Tableau Software embarked on a move to subscriptions for its data visualization software. The shift gave the company a major boost and paved the way for it to be acquired by Salesforce. F5 Networks is in the midst of a double shift, moving from hardware to software and embracing subscriptions as the main method to deliver its products.

And then of course there is Amazon Prime, the model many investors look to for Apple’s potential subscription service. To get people to sign up for Prime — at a cost of $119 a year or $12.99 a month — Amazon has added a ton of benefits, including fast shipping, access to its Prime Video streaming service and more. Amazon reached 100 million global Prime members last year.

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