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Apple's China dilemma: market share or cachet?

A sign of the new iPhone 5 is seen at the entrance of an Apple Store in the financial district of Pudong in Shanghai December 14, 2012. REUT
A sign of the new iPhone 5 is seen at the entrance of an Apple Store in the financial district of Pudong in Shanghai December 14, 2012. REUT

By Lee Chyen Yee

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Apple Inc's third straight disappointing quarter signals an urgent need for the global technology leader to drum up new revenue - and China may provide the answer.

Now more than ever, analysts say, Apple needs to get it right in the world's most populous country, where it ranks only sixth in annual smartphone sales and Samsung Electronics remains the runaway leader.

Apple's best plan of attack remains securing a deal with the country's top mobile carrier by far, China Mobile Ltd. It also needs to push the development of more localized apps and extend installment financing to bring its pricey smartphones within the reach of an urban populace with an average annual income of just $3,500.

But it should resist the temptation to just put out a cheaper iPhone, some analysts say. Introducing a long-rumored lower-cost version of the gadget could backfire by diluting Apple's premium brand - one of its most valuable assets.

"If you think of Apple, it's like a bright star in the galaxy, shining so brightly and everyone is looking at it. But it might have dimmed a bit as other stars such as Samsung have popped up," said TZ Wong, an analyst at research firm IDC.

"I don't think it's in Apple's interest to further dim its star power by stepping into the low-end segment."

With Apple's product pipeline guarded with the same zeal accorded state secrets, some analysts are focusing instead on what the world's largest technology company needs to do to finally become a major player in the world's No. 2 economy.

While iPhone sales leapt 60 percent last quarter, investors worry that, in the longer term, the company may be pricing itself out of a golden opportunity while Samsung and local rivals from Huawei Technologies Co Ltd to ZTE blanket the market with cheaper phones that rival the iPhone in quality and usability.

A deal with China Mobile, the world's largest mobile phone carrier with more than 700 million users, will prove instrumental but analysts say that may not happen until the issuance of 4G wireless licenses, which could take place later this year or even in 2014.

"The competitive landscape has definitely cranked up a few notches from a year ago. So there is more urgency for Apple to explore its ways to grow," IDC's Wong said.

CEO Tim Cook has made it no secret that China is an area of intense focus for the iPad and iPhone maker, especially given the still-low penetration across the country of smartphones and tablets. Apple has said it will continue to expand its retail network there, and in January, Cook flew to Beijing for at least the second time in a year, to meet with pivotal carrier China Mobile.

A STAR IS DIMMED

On Wednesday, Apple missed revenue forecasts for the third straight quarter after iPhone sales came in below expectations, fanning fears that its dominance of consumer electronics is slipping.

Apple's revenue in China, including neighboring Hong Kong and Taiwan, totaled $7.3 billion in the December quarter, up 60 percent from a year earlier.

But there are signs that Apple's vaunted cachet in the world's most populous nation is waning.

Recent product launches for the mini-iPad and the iPhone 5 have drawn a relatively subdued response from Chinese consumers, in stark contrast to the fist-fights and egg-hurling at its Beijing store a year ago when sales of the iPhone 4S were delayed.

Since the iPhone 5 went on sale in mid-December, transactions have fallen by half, according to the Taobao Index, the consumer research data website of Internet giant Alibaba Group.

The iPhone is also losing out as consumers opt for bigger screens to watch Chinese soap operas while travelling on trains, or affordable smartphones in the sub-1,000 yuan ($160) category made by local vendors.

"When I started using a bigger screen, there was no turning back for me. Small screens don't work anymore," said a business executive surnamed Wen, as he swiped the screen on his Samsung Galaxy Note during lunch in Beijing.

Around half of the more than 60 million smartphones shipped in China in the third quarter last year had screens that were bigger than 4 inches, based on IDC's latest figures. The iPhone 5 comes with a 4-inch screen, while the Galaxy Note II's screen is 5.5 inches.

Also, local vendors such as Coolpad smartphone maker Yulong Computer Telecommunication Scientific (Shenzhen) Co Ltd, which offers cheaper alternatives, and Meizu Technology Co Ltd, known for its minimalist designs, have seen its legion of fans grow.

Price is a key factor, especially in the Chinese market where around 80 percent of the more than one billion mobile phone users are still on 2G networks.

On the online Taobao website, Coolpads and low-end models made by Huawei Technologies Co Ltd and ZTE Corp are selling at below 1,000 yuan, a sweet spot for many consumers switching from basic phones to smartphones.

Apple has moved to address that, partnering with China Merchants Bank to offer financing and installment options so that buyers can pay with the bank's credit card when they shop online, media reports said.

Finally, expanding the number of applications customized for China will help grow Apple's market share but that might need tighter collaboration with Chinese companies, such as Baidu Inc and Tencent Holdings Ltd.

"Consumers will definitely welcome closer cooperation between Apple and Chinese tech firms to customize the iPhone for the use of apps such as Tencent's WeChat," said Frederick Wong, executive director of Avant Capital Management (Hong Kong) Ltd, a fund that invests in Apple-related options.

(Editing by Edwin Chan and Richard Chang)

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