Apple Should Take The $199 Chinese Smartphone Seriously

Sep. 6.12 | About: Apple Inc. (AAPL)

At a time when China is set to overtake the U.S. as the world's largest smartphone market, little-known Chinese firms are prepared to battle it out for market dominance with the maker of the game-changing iPhone, Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL). As per the predictions of IDC and Gartner, China's smartphone shipments could hit 140 million this year, exceeding those in the United States.

There are a number of Chinese brands offering similar capabilities, nominally, as the iPhone at half the price, most of them using a forked version of Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android. The names include ZTE Corp., Lenovo Group, and other small private firms like Xiaomi, Gionee, and Meizu Technology. Even cheaper smartphones are offered by Alibaba Group, Shanda Interactive, and Baidu (NASDAQ:BIDU) for fewer than ¥1,000 (~$150 U.S.).

Xiaomi Technology, founded just two years ago, has emerged as a serious potential threat to the likes of Apple and Samsung in smartphone arena. According to its CEO, the company sold more than 3 million phones with revenues close to $1 billion for the first half of 2012. Its latest offering, a successor to its popular MiOne (MI) smartphone, the MI2, costs less than half the price of iPhone 4S, but exceeds its specifications. Xiaomi not only tries to mimic the iPhone's specifications, but has also been able to charge fans ¥199 (~$31) to attend the Beijing launch of the phone, the same way as Apple followers would pay to see Steve Jobs showcasing new products. The Xiaomi conference was attended by more than 1,000 people, with the proceeds going to charity. The MI2, which is expected to hit the markets in October, will have quad-core Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) S4 Pro SoC, an 8 mega-pixel camera, and a voice-assistant similar to Apple's Siri, and is priced at ¥1,999 ($310). This is no cheap knock-off, but rather a serious piece of hardware packed with the latest technology.

The fascinating part of Android's rise here is that Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) will likely see more profit from many of these phones than Google will due to the licensing agreements many of them have made to avoid patent issues with Redmond. Reports are spotty, but Microsoft collects anywhere from $5 to $15 per Android license and has deals with at least half of the phones sold. Moreover, it is very possible it makes more money than Google does.

In the coming years it is expected that Apple's market share may flatten out or even dip, as it has this year, but market share is not Apple's goal; it has always been about margins -- selling a premium product at extremely high margins to those with the resources to not care about the upfront cost. Estimates from IDC place the sub-$200 smartphone at 40% of the shipments, while devices costing more than $700 made up 11% of the market, which is where Apple plays and why it still controls most of the profits generated by the industry. China and India make up 40% of new smartphone activations.

This huge difference in shipments is mainly due to the limited purchasing power of an average Chinese person, which is around ¥800-¥1,500 ($130-$240). By contrast, the iPhone comes with a price tag of around $800, the equivalent of two months of earnings of an urban Chinese person (in an area that has around 670 million people).

According to a report from Gartner, Apple's market share by volume has been sliding and iOS' share of the mobile operating system space is expected to slip to third place by 2016 below Android and Windows Phone. The Gartner report is, however, very controversial as Windows Phone has not proven anything to this point, although Nokia's (NYSE:NOK) sales of its Lumia 610 and Asha line of proto-smartphones are keeping its brand alive while it searches for the killer phone. Even in its second-largest market, iPhone sales slipped for the April-June quarter due to inventory adjustments after the huge launch of the iPhone 4S.

Apart from these estimates, Apple also suffers on various fronts in China. The iPhone is backed by China Telecom and China Unicom, but the country's and the world's leading telco China Mobile (with about 655 million subscribers) has still not supported it. Apple and China Mobile are still working on the details of China Mobile's implementation of CDMA, which requires Apple to build a specific phone for its network.

Responding to the competition and the difference between the iPhone and the local offerings, Apple recently slashed the price of the iPhone 3GS below $200. While an entry-level Apple phone is something that the market will absorb, part of Apple's appeal is the status it confers and a 3GS simply not a strong enough status symbol to drive sales. Mix in that with Chinese preferences for buying from Chinese companies and this market becomes a whole lot harder for Apple to maintain not its sales per se -- it can manipulate prices to maintain sales -- but its extreme margins. The latest earnings call highlighted this as it sold a lot of lower-end iPads and iPhones in Asia, which pushed its results and future guidance under 40% net margins.

Companies like Lenovo, ZTE, and Huawei are gaining because they are Chinese and are providing good products at reasonable prices. Lenovo, in particular, is pushing its smartphone and PC strategy both up and down the value chain, similar to Samsung's approach. It is working very well for Lenovo, whose revenues were up 40% in the second quarter when everyone else was complaining of softening business.

Apple's problems are the standard problems for a company on top of the world; everyone will nibble away at it in various little ways. How it responds to this is key.

The recent lawsuit victory over Samsung and its pressing of the legal attack smacks of a company that is frightened. Why should it fear Samsung? And if it doesn't, why did it go after Samsung and restrict consumer choice, a clear breach of its branding compact with its fans? Is it trying to push Samsung into Windows 8 Phone's arms? All of these things point to further margin erosion for Apple and a slowing of its titanic growth without a new market to push into. As things stand now, staking a new position in Apple requires believing none of these issues matter.

It points to Apple becoming a value trap at some point in the future. Not every country, especially China, will grant Apple an injunction against knockoff competition; quite the opposite is true. Many investors are sitting on capital gains so large they can't sell, and the dividend will pay them well enough to stay in even if the price goes nowhere. But new investors should be very careful in light of the market dynamics.

Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.