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Apple fans in China find new iPhones costly

September 12, 2013|By Jonathan Kaiman
  • A woman talks on her iPhone at the Apple store in Shanghai.
A woman talks on her iPhone at the Apple store in Shanghai. (Eugene Hoshiko / Associated…)

BEIJING -- If anything indicates how China’s Apple fans feel about the company’s latest product release this week, it’s how Nicole Zhou spent her Wednesday afternoon. 

One day after the Cupertino-based company unveiled two new iPhone models -- the 5s, with an upgraded processor and fingerprint security system, and the slightly cheaper 5c, with a colorful plastic back -- 30-year-old Zhou, an employee at a state-owned enterprise, bought herself a Samsung Galaxy S4 handset.

"I had no idea the 5c was going to cost 5,000 yuan (about $817)," she said. "I don’t see any really big difference between that one and the other new iPhone."

Millions of Apple fanatics live in China, the world’s biggest smartphone market, and many anticipated this week’s product release with the same zeal as their U.S. counterparts. But for many, the launch brought a series of disappointments. First, the release event in China -- Apple’s first media event in the country -- turned out to be a cut-and-dry screening of the prior night’s Silicon Valley unveiling. And then, according to online posts and interviews, Apple failed to impress. 

“The prices are too high,” said Nuo Long, manager of Wanxiang, a Shenzhen-based company that manufactures and sells knockoff iPhone handsets. "Also, there aren’t many new innovative features. So I don’t think the 5c or the 5s will sell as well as the 4s or 4."

Nuo, a self-professed Apple fanatic, said he is personally considering buying an iPhone 5s -- it’s only slightly more expensive than the 5c, he said, and owning the latest model would make him feel ahead of the curve. Yet he’s still not entirely sold.

“I think after [Steve] Jobs died, [current Apple CEO Tim] Cook hasn’t done much in the way of innovating new products,” he said.

Many China tech analysts predicted that the iPhone 5c would cost 3,000 yuan ($490), giving it an edge over low-cost competitors that over the past few years have slowly eroded Apple’s market share. Yet Wednesday, the company announced that a 5c with 16GB of memory would cost 4,488 yuan ($733), about as much as an average Beijinger’s monthly salary. The most basic model of the 5s will sell for 5,288 yuan, or $864.

"Even though Apple has a lower-end iPhone now, its price is still considered mid-end in China and not low-end," Sandy Shen, a Shanghai-based analyst for Gartner, told Reuters. "Considering Apple's old rival Samsung and domestic players such as Huawei, Lenovo and Coolpad all have phones in that category, Apple will still lose out in market share in these key segments."

On Wednesday, the product release was a trending topic on China’s most popular microblogging service, Sina Weibo. One user compared the 5c’s colorful plastic backing to a potato peeler. Another said the "c" probably stood for “costly”; a third guessed that the “s” in 5S meant “super-expensive.”

Others were bemused by Apple’s decision to take the iPhone 5 off shelves while the iPhone 4 and 4s remain on sale. “The saddest thing in the world is when an old person must attend her child’s funeral,” wrote user JustBreathless.

Chen Xin, a 23-year-old human resources employee at a five-star hotel in Beijing, said that for many of her coworkers, Apple’s prestige is worth the price.

“The most important thing is the brand,” Chen said. “The phones could be even more expensive, and people would still buy them.”

Yet Chen hasn’t bought into the hype -- last year, she swapped her aging iPhone 4s for a Samsung, and does not plan to switch back. “I’m not as rich as my friends,” she said.

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