Let’s face it, Apple’s (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhone, though a wonderful device, is seen globally as a high-end smartphone, one that many relish as not only a do-almost-everything handset, but also as a status symbol.
But, as much less expensive Android-driven phones become available in those parts of the world where price is definitely important, and status means less than putting food on the table, paying retail for an iPhone is out of the question.
Greater China (the mainland, Hong Kong, and Taiwan) is Apple’s second largest market outside the United States, with $6.83 million from sales during its last fiscal quarter. But the iPhone fell two notches -- to sixth place -- in smartphone sales during the third quarter of 2012, according to research firm IDC. Samsung and Lenovo, were No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, ZTE was No. 4, and Huawei was No. 5.
The threat to iPhone growth in China, however, comes from companies one may never have heard of in the U.S. Coolpad, for example, is the smartphone maker that jumped up three spots to become the third best-selling smartphone brand in China during that time frame.
But the real danger for Apple in China and other emerging markets comes from companies like MediaTek, the Taiwanese company behind those companies that have been taking China’s smartphone market share away from Apple. MediaTek is the company that has helped those other companies produce smartphones at prices Chinese consumers just can’t refuse.
MediaTek makes what’s called a “turnkey solution” to the problem of manufacturing inexpensive smartphones. It puts together the chipsets, the Android operating system, packages all that with instructions on how to build the phone, and provides technical support for those companies needing it. Why pay for the research and development of a smartphone when someone has already done it?
MediaTek’s turnkey systems have become so popular that, within 18 months of putting its first chipset in a Lenovo phone in 2011, its chipsets have taken 50% of China’s smartphone market, analysts told the New York Times.
Spreadtrum Communications (NASDAQ:SPRD) is a Chinese company that is also in the turnkey smartphone chipset business. It expects to ship between 80 million and 100 million of its smartphone chipsets in 2013, platforms that will end up in markets where consumers are just now moving up from feature phones to smartphones.
“To date,” says IDC, “much of the world’s smartphone shipments were a direct result of demand in mature economies such as the U.S."
But that is definitely changing. The growing middle classes in China, Brazil, and India are ready to buy smartphones. China, especially, says IDC, “which supplanted the U.S. last year as the global leader in smartphone shipments, is at the forefront of this shift."
Even the young tech-conscious consumers of the world have to live within their economic realities. Zhang Ying is a 31-year-old Shanghai resident who wants the latest tech gadgets, but can’t pay a premium for it. He bought a pirated version of an HTC phone last year. “Every person has a price point,” he said. “At a time when some of my friends were buying Samsung or iPhone, I wanted to show that I can keep up with them. A lot of domestic phones are cheap and of fairly good quality."
“The markets we target have 5.8 billion people, whereas the U.S. and Europe have less than one billion,” MediaTek CFO David Ku told the New York Times. “I need to aim at a global market, not just developed countries.”
By the way, MetroPCS (NASDAQ:TMUS) began offering a Coolpad 4G LTE phone last summer at a no-annual-contract price of $149. True, it runs an older version of Android (2.3), and it doesn’t have the highest megapixel camera (3.2), but compare that to paying $649 retail for an iPhone 5.
Fool contributor Dan Radovsky has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Apple. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.