Last Friday I reported how China’s smartphone market had hit its first major slowdown in 27 months, as the growth engine of Asia slowly matures.
Well, I’ve been back to the analyst house where those stats came from to ask specifically who the biggest handset winners and losers are in China at the moment.
Unsurprisingly Samsung remains number one with a market share of 19 per cent, followed by local players Lenovo (13 per cent), Coolpad (11 per cent) and Huawei (10 per cent).
Apple rounded out the top five with a 7 per cent share – which various reports have shown was a one per cent improvement on the previous quarter and signs that things are picking up in China for the US giant.
Well, I’m not quite so sure. IDC senior research manager Melissa Chau told me that the biggest year-on-year movers were actually Lenovo (+57%), Coolpad (+36 per cent) and Huawei (+26 per cent). Samsung posted not unimpressive 20 per cent growth, but Apple’s year-on-year share actually dropped 2 per cent.
By comparison, its nearest rival, home-grown star Xiaomi, notched impressive 91 per cent growth to take sixth place with 6 per cent of the market.
So will Apple be worried? Well yes and no, according to Chau.
On the one hand the Cupertino giant has always been a high margin business, making way more money on handsets than Xiaomi and most of its Chinese rivals. To that extent it doesn’t need to shift smartphones in volumes quite so great.
However, the counter argument is that Apple needs to be seen as an attractive, popular platform, for the sake of its ecosystem.
“It is relevant to look at shipments because they affect Apple’s market power; it’s ability to attract developers,” Chau explained.
“Apple must walk a fine line making sure it doesn’t drop so far down that Android is the only ecosystem in China. It won’t be a risk it’s taking this or next year but it needs to watch [this trend]. That’s why it makes sense to launch a lower cost model there.”
You can’t argue with this logic. With Xiaomi’s low margin, high volume strategy potentially lifting it above Apple the last thing Cupertino wants is to be left floating outside of the leading pack, even if it is still hovering up revenue in one of its biggest markets.
Much has been written about the potential sales lift Apple’s recently announced deal with China Mobile – the world’s largest operator by subscriber numbers – will give it. However, as Chau told me, this might have been overplayed by some commentators – after all, we’re not talking about a new iPhone model here.
“Given the model has been out for some time I’m not sure the bump will be as significant as people are making out,” she argued. “The bump will come with the next iteration of the iPhone.”
All at Apple will be hoping that creates more buzz than its last major launch here. Or it could seriously be time to go back to the drawing board.
Well, it’s a name which may well become more familiar to tech-watchers in 2014 if its sales predictions for the year turn out to be more than the usual new year marketing hype.
The Shenzhen-based firm, which is slightly better known under its Coolpad brand, said it’s hoping to shift 40 million 4G handsets this year in China, in addition to 20m 3G devices.
Some local media reports have the company claiming this will help it topple global leader Samsung in the 4G stakes, even though the Korean giant is currently way out in front in the Middle Kingdom with a market share of nearly 20 per cent – almost double that of Yulong.
They would appear to be a combination of mis-reporting and vendor hype, though, as Samsung told me it hasn’t even released any predictions on how many 4G handsets it will sell this year.
A Lenovo spokeswoman, meanwhile, said: “It’s not our practice to comment or make prediction on unannounced products.”
That aside, however, Coolpad has been gradually creeping up the smartphone rankings in its home country over the past few years, largely without the media attention that has greeted Huawei, ZTE, Lenovo and, of course, Xiaomi.
That might be because it has neither Xiaomi’s flair, Huawei’s big bucks, nor ZTE’s propensity to court controversy.
It’s currently third in the rankings just behind Lenovo, according to IDC stats for Q3 2013. If it’s to continue to climb it’ll need to make sure it’s competitively priced relative to Samsung, around the 1-2,000 RMB mark, IDC’s Bryan Ma told me.
Apart from that, “speed to 4G” will also count, he added. To this end, Yulong has already struck a deal with China Mobile to sell its TDD/FDD-LTE handset the Coolpad 8920 and there’ll certainly be more to follow.
So will the firm join Huawei, ZTE and others in aggressive overseas expansion? Well, it already is selling in markets like the US, but headway there has been more difficult given its low brand recognition.
It might have overtaken Apple in the Middle Kingdom last year but 2014 will be a tough year for Yulong and its parent company China Wireless to make an impact abroad – that is, outside of emerging markets where the appetite for cheap smartphones is greater.
As a hack whose inbox has been deluged with this kind of dross for weeks now, I’m going to look ahead to 2014 with a more focused question, namely: “how will Western companies fare in China next year, and vice versa?”
Well, first up the signs aren’t looking good for US tech firms. Washington has turned up the anti-China rhetoric fiercely in 2013 and with high profile reports like Mandiant’s finally tying Beijing to cyber espionage, things were already looking tricky for US firms in China.
Then Edward Snowden happened – a gift from heaven for the Chinese government which can now portray itself as victim of spying, not a perp, with an even straighter face.
Expect the backlash to come from Beijing, partly because of this, but also because China has some world class companies of its own now, especially when it comes to networking equipment (Huawei and ZTE), PCs (Lenovo) and mobile devices (all of the above plus Xiaomi, Oppo, Meizu, Coolpad, etc etc), so it can afford to be more self-reliant.
IBM and HP have both announced they’re shedding jobs in the PRC, despite the strategic importance of the market.
IBM just announced a new cloud partnership which will see it team up with Azure partner 21 Vianet to provide managed private cloud capabilities to business customers there, however it admitted in October a 22 per cent sales slump in China. Ouch.
Cisco has seen a recent 6 per cent sales slump in China with John Chambers admitting on a November earnings call: “China continued to decline as we and our peers worked through the challenging political dynamic in that country.”
Then there’s Qualcomm, which counts China as a $1bn market, has worked with countless local OEMs to support their products and yet now finds itself at the centre of an anti-monopoly investigation which could see it fined in excess of $1bn.
The rule in Beijing seems to be; if you can’t beat ‘em (and China still has some way to go before its chip makers are world class), fine ‘em.
Expect more of the same next year.
So what of the great Chinese invasion? I spoke recently to Deloitte TMT partner William Chou about this.
In the hardware space historically only the likes of ZTE, Lenovo and Huawei had a chance to grow their offerings abroad, but with VC firms now splashing the cash, more innovative local firms will be able to invest in R&D and expand their footprint internationally, he argued.
Coolpad, Meizu and Xiaomi, to name but three, could be names to watch for 2014.
“There are a lot of these smartphone manufacturers but the ones which will be winners are not really the handset manufacturers but the ones which can combine hardware, software and internet services, like Xiaomi,” Chou told me.
Others he mentioned included a Shenzhen-based handset firm looking at JVs in France and South Africa and an unnamed private company “aggressively” looking to expand in the European market.
On the internet side there are fewer potential breakaway global brands which could make a real impact in 2014.
Tencent’s WeChat is definitely one of them, although Chou argued that Google-beater Baidu will struggle as it seeks to “re-engineer its business model from search to mobile internet”.
There are also a host of little-known software and online firms under-the-radar ready to pounce, including one of the China’s online travel giants which is looking to acquire in Germany, Chou revealed.
In fact, the recently announced Deloitte Fast 500 list of fastest growing APAC start-ups had more companies from the Middle Kingdom than any other represented, although none made the top ten.
Going into 2014 entrepreneurs who are able to “apply technology to other industries” will stand the best chance of success, Chou said.
“China has an ageing population and a one-child policy so healthcare is a serious problem, so how you apply e-health will be a trend,” he explained. “Another major challenge is pollution, so clean tech will be a major area for entrepreneurs to consider as well.”
Whatever happens, things are never quiet in this part of the world. Let’s see what you’ve got 2014.