Why some Chinese consumers think an iPhone is worth two Huaweis or three Xiaomis

  • The iPhone 6, launched by Apple in 2014, remains a favourite among Chinese consumers
  • Not fair to look at Android smartphone brands the same way we did five years ago
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 November, 2018, 6:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 November, 2018, 5:56pm

Some things in China have long been treasured as a symbol of social status: flats, cars, luxury brands, and expensive gadgets. While it is not easy for most Chinese to afford a decent home or an expensive car, owning a high-end smartphone – something that can be used on a daily basis – becomes the best option for many, especially the young, as a way to show off their taste.

That is why Apple’s iPhone, once the best option in the market without any challenger in terms of performance, was long seen as the smartphone of choice in China.

So it was no surprise when recent research by Shanghai-based MobData provoked controversy when it found that Apple iPhone users in China are generally less educated and hard-up, with fewer valuable assets, than users of other smartphones from brands such as Huawei Technologies or Xiaomi.

While I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the results, another finding in the report was also surprising. It indicated that the iPhone 6, launched by Apple in 2014, remains a favourite among Chinese users while later versions such as the iPhone 6S and iPhone 6S Plus, both released a year later, were in second and third place.

Research highlights class divide between ‘poor’ Apple iPhone and ‘rich’ Huawei users in China

These findings made me reconsider whether an iPhone that has been used for four years and probably had its original battery replaced could still be a symbol of value, or even of social status, in China these days.

For years, iPhone users in China have seen themselves as superior because they had the best smartphone on the planet. This kind of thinking does not come out of nowhere – Apple advertises its products the same way. To be sure, there is no doubt that Cupertino, California-based Apple has led the evolution of the global smartphone market since it first introduced the iPhone in 2007. It was considered an iconic design that every brand tried to duplicate. And for users, the device ran the smoothest and most secure mobile operating system, iOS.

It may still be true that the iPhone offers the best features in the market, but it is not fair to look at Android smartphone brands the same way we did five years ago. When we read the product reviews, high-end smartphones from Samsung Electronics could offer the best displays, Huawei has the best cameras, OnePlus has the smoothest system and Xiaomi offers the best prices.

What does the updated iPhone XS have that the old X does not?

Apple’s iPhones are no longer the smartphones that are so good that they have left everyone behind – except in one aspect: pricing.

To own the latest flagship iPhone, the XS Max, you need to pay a starting price of 9,599 yuan (US$1,382) in China, with other versions costing up to 12,799 yuan. That is basically twice the price of Huawei’s Mate 20 and three times the Xiaomi Mi Mix 3, which represent the two best and most powerful flagship models released by Chinese brands in recent months, according to reviewers. But is the iPhone’s double and triple price tag justified by the same proportional increase in better user experience?

Most consumers would be like me, using their smartphone all the time but mostly for simple operations like voice calls, web surfing, messaging on WeChat, taking snapshots and playing mobile games. For these simple operations, you do not see any difference any more between an expensive iPhone and a more affordable, high-end Android model, especially when all the Android smartphone brands have boosted research and development to make sure their handsets function just as good as an iPhone.

Therefore, if you choose an iPhone for general usage it means you are paying the price of a motorbike but using it like a bicycle. Meantime, since buyers outlay a large sum on their iPhone, some would try to use it as long as possible to justify the money they spent. This would seem to back up the findings of the seemingly illogical MobData report that found the iPhone 6 is still the most popular.

When reports constantly come out saying the Chinese smartphone market is saturating, they are also implying that the consumers in China have matured. At the end of the day, when people see the Apple logo everywhere and using an iPhone no longer makes them feel special or “well-off”, they will start making more rational choices.

I see an increasing number of former iPhone users starting to purchase Android smartphones, but the opposite trend is rare.

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In my case, I have two smartphones and one is the latest iPhone XS Max. I also have an Honor Magic 2 from Huawei, which costs 4,299 yuan, or only 40 per cent of the 10,999 yuan I paid for the Apple device. Both smartphones are good: nice screens, smooth systems, long battery life, good camera … you name it. But I don’t feel much difference in daily usage.

But why am I paying a large sum for the latest iPhone even though I don’t think it is worth the value? Probably because I have been an iPhone user for years and I am not ready to make a complete change.

That means I am not a rational buyer, and I belong to a group of people Apple is relying on to maintain its high margins. If not, why would I even consider buying it?