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Apple doubles down on China as local rivals pull ahead

The shares in the Chinese market has slipped becoming more reliant on govt approvals

Reuters  |  Shanghai/Beijing 

Apple, WWDC 2017
Representative image. Photo: Reuters

Inc is binding itself more closely to as its share of the world's biggest smartphone market slips and it becomes more reliant on selling services which require approval.

A flurry of recent action by Cupertino-based underlines its push to get on the right side of China's notoriously tough tech regulators, as it looks to revive sales there.

This weekend it moved to block apps used to evade the country's internet censors, a decision that fits with Beijing's recent crackdown on unapproved online content. And has announced it will establish its first data centre in the politically important province of Guizhou and has created the new position of a managing director for Greater China, reporting directly to

Apple's revenues have stalled, falling for a fifth straight quarter in January-March, when sales grew in every other region. recently slipped to Apple's third-largest market, as consumers have switched to newer domestic offerings. The buzz around new launches has also cooled since the iPhone 6 in 2014.

When it unveils quarterly earnings later on Tuesday, is likely to report another dip in smartphone sales. Its once coveted iPhone has slipped into fifth position behind offerings from local rivals Huawei, Oppo, Vivo and Xiaomi, analysts said.

The iPhone's share of China's smartphone shipments fell to 9 per cent in January-June, from a peak of 14 per cent in 2015, according to consultancy Counterpoint.

Having China's on-side will certainly help.

"Because others have eaten away at Apple's market share in China, it now has to pay more attention to regulation from government," said Beijing-based tech analyst Li Chengdong. "is such a key market for that it has to listen."

declined to comment for this article.

Apple, like other US tech brands including Facebook Inc and Alphabet Inc's Google, has looked to woo China's leaders to give it greater access, especially as it pushes services such as its App Store and Pay.

Services were Apple's rare bright spot in its struggling business and logged double-digit revenue growth in Greater in January-March.

And maintaining momentum is crucial, as device sales may come under pressure again until unveils its new iPhone, widely expected later this year in a milestone launch that will be key to winning back Chinese buyers.

Friendly signal

The services push, however, comes with risks.

is tightening regulation of what it sees as its cyberspace, including online media, live streaming and gaming, and brought in a new cyber security law on June 1, pushing firms to store user data inside China's borders.

has made swift moves to comply, despite concerns by overseas business groups who say the law's strict data rules and storage requirements are overly vague.

The new data centre - part of a planned $1 billion investment in Guizhou province - has a potential political upside too. wants to turn Guizhou into a tech hub, while President Xi Jinping himself has close ties to the region as a delegate for the province at the Communist Party congress.

"By setting up a data centre and pulling VPNs, (Apple) is sending a friendly signal to the Chinese government," said Liu Xingliang, head of the DCCI Internet Research Institute.

said at the weekend it would remove virtual private network (VPN) services from its App Store - systems that allow users to bypass China's so-called "Great Firewall" aimed at restricting access to overseas sites.

has targeted VPNs as it bids to tighten control over the domestic internet, a drive that is ramping up ahead of the Communist Party Congress later this year.

Some said the recent moves jarred with Apple's stance in the United States last year, when it opposed an FBI court order to break into an iPhone of a gunman who fatally shot 14 people in San Bernardino in December 2015, with Cook saying it would be "bad for America".

The US firm's gamble here is clear: making moves to appease Chinese censors may prompt criticism outside China, but the firm will hope that local consumers are rather less fazed.

"It's normal that wants to get along well with the Chinese government," said Wang Siyue, 27, a marketing professional in Shanghai, who is a long-term iPhone user.

"I will buy the next generation (iPhone) when it comes out. I'm just used to it," Wang said, adding she doesn't use much, and Apple's move to take down the app wouldn't impact her decision to buy a new iPhone.

First Published: Tue, August 01 2017. 21:27 IST