The iPhone and upstart smartphone Xiaomi
Apple’s presentation of new mobile operating system iOS 6 last week sent Chinese Apple fans into a frenzy. On Sina Weibo, 1.8 million and counting messages were posted commenting on iOS 6. Many people were excited by the new features aimed at Chinese users, such as default options to use QQ for email and Baidu for search.
The new feature that seems to have intrigued most people is that Siri now speaks Chinese – both Mandarin and Cantonese. On Youku.com, fans have posted videos of people interrogating Siri with questions ranging from the frivolous to the downright obscene such as the following:
User: Tell me a joke.
Siri: Once there were two iPhones and they walked into a bar… I can’t remember the rest.
User: Fuck your mother (in Cantonese)
Siri: Whoever said this should blush.
Not everyone is amused: Many Chinese Internet companies, especially developers who make apps that sell on the iTunes store, are worried that they might be undercut and sidelined, and see Apple’s new move as part of a bigger scheme to exert greater control over the users of its phones.
An article on Sina Tech expresses the concern that Apple’s new partnership with companies like Baidu will put other Chinese Internet companies at a disadvantage. App developers worry that some new iOS 6 features will make previously useful apps redundant. Apple switching to its own mapping function as the default rather than Google Maps means that some developers will have to redesign their apps to accommodate the new change.
Even though the iOS 6 update hasn’t gone public yet, pirated ‘developers’ preview’ versions are already available on Chinese websites. Early adopters who can’t wait to get a taste of the new fruit can get a trial version iOS 6 for 30 yuan on Taobao, China’s biggest online consumer-to-consumer marketplace (similar to eBay). A preview version of Mountain Lion, Apple’s next generation desktop operating system is also available for download for 10 yuan. Reviews of the new operating systems are mostly positive but there are also plenty of reported glitches. Some users noted on Weibo that their devices ‘turned into bricks’ due to unsuccessful updates, and some of them were unable to open old apps after the update.
The Chinese smartphone market is the largest in the world, accounting for 22% of worldwide smartphone shipments during the first quarter of 2012. There are around one billion mobile phone users, and many of them are contemplating buying their first smart phone. In a Danwei survey of 209 Chinese mobile users conducted in March 2012 we found that 96% owned smart phones, and 94% of them used mobile phones to access the internet. The majority used Android phones. Our sample comprised only Weibo users, so is not representative of the general population. Not yet.
Cheaper smartphone brands are growing in popularity as their quality rises. 40% of Chinese smart phones are expected to cost less than $200 [around 1,200 yuan] by 2015, yet so far the only budget Chinese smartphone that has successfully built a brand and achieved a certain amount of cool status along the lines of Apple is Xiaomi, a phone that runs on a version of Google’s Android operating system called MIUI. Xiaomi currently offers only one model, priced at 1,999 yuan. The phone looks a little like an iPhone, and comes in a range of colors. Xiaomi founder and CEO Lei Jun (雷军) is sometimes criticized for aping the fashion sense and stage manners of Steve Jobs (black shirt, blue jeans etc.). The Xiaomi offers itself rather blatantly as a cheap alternative to the iPhone.
Xiaomi is doing very well, selling 150,000 smart phones in only 12 minutes earlier this year according to this report. This is reflected on social media: as of this writing, more than 62 million messages on Weibo are about Xiaomi, compared to just over ten million about Meizu, Xiaomi’s main rival in the Chinese branded smartphone market. This is extraordinary since the phone was only launched in August 2011, and Lei Jun’s previous company Kingsoft is known for making anti-virus software, and had no expertise in hardware manufacturing.
Xiaomi is not the only new Chinese player to join the smartphone race: Early this year, Shanda, a NASDAQ-listed giant in online gaming and online publishing, entered the fray and has made its budget dual-core Bambook available for pre-order, with the official release date now imminent (June 28). Qihoo 360, a controversial anti-virus software company announced its intention to sell smartphones and has promised a device to be priced under 1,000 yuan. OPPO, a maker of consumer electronics, is breaking away from DVD and MP3 players it is known for to tease Chinese crowds with Finder, the world’s slimmest smart phone which is now available for pre-order for a whopping 3,999 yuan. Search engine Baidu is also entering the fray with the Changhong H5018 that will make use of the company’s cloud technology to offer 100 Gigabytes of free storage space.
With so many players in the market, a price war is looming.
Yet none of the Chinese smartphone brands mentioned above can draw the same kind of attention given to the iPhone as a marker of status, and this is reflected by the more than 273 million (and counting) messages on Sina Weibo that contain the key word iPhone. In comparison, there are just over 64 million messages that mention Android. (The gap is partially explained by the fact that Android is the operating system used by several different brands, and consumers are more likely to mention the phone brand than the operating system. There are over 12 million messages that mention Android in direct comparison with Apple’s iOS.)
Despite the attention, the iPhone’s market share in the Chinese smart phone market is only just over 8%, but the phone’s position as a status symbol and object of desire is firmly entrenched in the minds of China’s consumers. Thus the iPhone serves as a status symbol not unlike car ownership. This is reflected in Weibo conversations where people often associate the iPhone with ‘second-generation rich’ (fu er dai 富二代), young people born into wealth, whose photos of themselves show off their Ferraris and Hermès Birkin handbags, much to the chagrin of other netizens.
A retweeted message about iPhone is the following joke:
I really don’t want to work now, but I have to because son, I want you to own an iPhone N when you grow up, so you won’t have to masturbate, and you can become a tall, handsome, rich guy and pick up girls.
I really don’t want to work now, but I have to because daughter, I want you to use iPhone N when you grow up and be able to afford to buy an air ticket to go home, so you won’t be tempted by tall, handsome and rich guys who promise you an iPhone.
The myth that an iPhone can improve one’s chances of hooking up is partly substantiated by the prevalent use of flirting apps that come in handy on an iPhone. One such tool is Weixin. Developed by Tencent, the app enables users to befriend any other users who are near and send messages to random users. There are enough reports of success to warrant the app the title of ‘app of one-night stands (约泡 or 一夜)’.
Apple remains the dominant luxury phone brand, and this is unlikely to change. But the most interesting developments in China’s mobile phone industry will now take place in the low- to mid-price range, where rapid innovation, lawsuits and a price war are already under way. Users of these phones, mere mortals of the smartphone world, will have to settle for Android 4.0 operating systems, which in this writer’s view is not much of a sacrifice at all. Maybe even a step up.
Links and sources
Tech in Asia: Spec by Spec: China’s 5 Hottest Homegrown Smartphones
China Yahoo: 推出中文Siri 普通语粤语带更多中国化功能
Sina Tech: iOS 6本地化令中国同行不安：或演变成进化战争
Taobao: 提前体验iOS6 beta特性 Udid 激活Iphone4S 开发者帐号 信誉第一
Taobao: mountain-lion 苹果 MAC 软件 系统 10.8 在线 更新 apple美洲狮
Inside Apple: China passes US in smartphone usage, over a billion mobile subscribers overall
The Next Web Asia: China’s affordable mobile revolution: 40% of smartphones will be sub-$200 by 2015
The China Daily: Xiaomi sells 150,000 smartphones in 12 mins
Forbes: China IPO: Qihoo’s Zhou Wins Big While His Rivals Simmer
Android Authority: Oppo Finder, the world’s thinnest smartphone, goes up for pre-order on June 6
Baidu Beat: Baidu Cloud smartphone unveiled
HC360: 国产低端机挤压苹果 iPhone市场份额仅8%