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The Apple-China Mobile power play

CHRISTMAS came several days early for Apple, which said on Sunday that it had clinched a deal with China Mobile, the largest wireless network in the world.

Now, Apple will gain access to the pockets of China Mobile's 763 million subscribers who will buy iPhones, iOS-based apps and be placed on the Grand Conveyor Belt of the Biennial Upgrade.

The pronouncements so far have verged on the giddy; Apple will sell 17 million - no, 20 million - actually, 45 million iPhones through China Mobile alone, according to a range of analyst forecasts.

At the risk of casting a Grinch-like pall over the festivities, there are many things about the deal that are worth mulling over.

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While a lot has been made of how network compatibility had determined the timing of the partnership, some thought must be given to how this deal has taken six years to materialise, from the time the first iPhone was launched in 2007.

For a telco, there is a lot that is daunting about having to sell an Apple handset, from the Cupertino firm's reported demand for sales volume guarantees to the hefty subsidies on handsets that telcos have had to swallow.

For the longest time everywhere else, a carrier that did not have a tie-up with Apple conceded valuable ground on market share. Through this, China Mobile has been a notable hold-out. In a market where Apple is only ranked fifth with a 6 per cent share, the world' largest wireless player could afford to continue the stand-off.

Now, though, the balance of power has shifted. In October, China Mobile's nine-month net profit slipped 1.9 per cent as its market share shrank, which some have blamed on the absence of an iPhone offering. In the tug-of-war between margin protection and market share retention, the latter finally won out.

China Mobile, it turns out, needs Apple after all. Very little has been said about China Mobile's iPhone pricing, but a few days before the Apple announcement, the telco said it was bracing itself for a greater subsidy expenditure next year, as it tries to get subscribers on its new 4G network.

This reversion to the subsidy mean is an interesting development, because for the past year, subsidy cutbacks and eliminations have caught on elsewhere. Spain's Telefonica cut subsidies last year, as did Vodafone Spain.

The results have been mixed - Telefonica had to slash prices on its smartphone in March, which it insists does not herald a return to handset subsidies. Vodafone, however, had to re-introduce handset subsidies on a promotional basis over the summer last year.

At the same time, Apple is not the company it once was. It faces stiff competition from cheaper handsets in a world where the poor greatly outnumber the rich and relies on subsidies to stay popular. In the ebb and flow of the subsidy wars, the victor will be determined by whether Apple needs the carriers more than the other way around.