Especially when it comes to the products of American tech companies, it’s easy to overlook the effect that the rest of the world has on the device in your pocket. But China is the world’s largest smartphone market, and Apple’s pursuit of success there has very visible effects on the iPhones we buy in the United States, too.
Josh Horwitz reports for Quartz that in an interview with the print-only Hong Kong edition of Bloomberg Businessweek, Apple chief executive Tim Cook points to the gold iPhone as one example of how the company has successfully localized the iPhone for the Chinese market. Cook told the publication that ” a big reason” why Apple released the gold iPhone was because many Chinese consumers like the color gold. “To be clear,” Cook explained, “sales for the gold iPhones in China have far, far exceeded other markets.”
Another major change brought to the iPhone thanks to Apple’s ambitions for the Chinese smartphone market was the introduction of third-party keyboard apps in iOS 8. The addition was inspired by requests from Chinese consumers, who note that typing in Chinese can be very tedious. Many of the most popular third-party keyboards in China had moved from PC to Android, but they hadn’t yet made it to Apple’s iPhones.
“Many people liked Apple’s in-house input method, but we also received lots of feed back from Chinese users [telling us] they wished there were more suitable input methods,” Cook said. “So we worked with Chinese developers to do research, and eventually let customers download them from the Chinese app store.”
Leonid Bershidsky reported for Bloomberg View after the debut of the iPhone 5s and iPhone 5c that “bringing together China and gold is a recipe for success.” He noted that gold is a well-used marketing tool in the world of mobile devices, and dumb phone manufacturers have long used the color in China and Russia. He adds, “The Cupertino company profited by remembering what its competitors, with their boring black and white flagship smartphones, appear to have forgotten: Self-identification is the main reason people buy a particular cell phone.”
Horwitz notes that the gold case option and the ability to choose a third-party keyboard aren’t the only, or even the biggest, ways that the Chinese market has influenced the development of the iPhone. While Apple was saying that the ability to use the iPhone 5 with one hand was a selling point, Samsung was winning Asian customers with large-screen devices. IDC reported in September 2014 that annual shipments of “phablets” were growing at a rate of 210% annually. In the same month, Apple released the iPhone 6 and the even-larger iPhone 6 Plus.
As Quartz notes, the attention that Apple has paid to its Chinese consumers has paid off, as the company’s revenue from greater China has “skyrocketed” since the launch of iOS 8 and the iPhone 6. Shara Tibken reported for CNET earlier in 2015 that China had officially surpassed the United States as Apple’s biggest iPhone market. Apple’s second-quarter revenue from the region got a boost from Chinese New Year in February, and was the only region detailed in Apple’s earnings report where March sales topped those of the first quarter.
China became the world’s largest smartphone market in 2011, and is home to almost 520 million smartphone users. Apple is working to gain market share in the country by striking deals with major mobile carriers, and a January 2014 agreement with the world’s largest carrier, China Mobile, gave Apple access to more than 800 million subscribers. Market research firm Kantar Worldpanel ComTech confirmed that Apple had climbed to the number one spot in smartphone sales in urban China from local manufacturer Xiaomi. In 2011, Apple made only $12.5 billion from China the entire year. In 2010, it made only $2.8 billion. But its sales in China in fiscal year 2014 totaled $29.8 billion.