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Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL  ) CEO Tim Cook, in a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, claimed that Apple's iOS devices account for 57% of all mobile Internet browsing in China.

Cook didn't give a source for his data -- it's likely that he's relying on internal Apple metrics of some sort. At any rate, I find that figure is a bit hard to believe. Google's (NASDAQ: GOOGL  ) Android has taken China by storm in recent quarters, as Samsung, Xiaomi, and other Android handset makers dominate the Chinese market.

China is Android country
According to Chinese research firm Umeng, there were just over 500 million smartphones used in China during the second quarter of 2013. Of those, about two-thirds were running some form of Google's Android operating system, while Apple's iPhones accounted for just 30%.

In terms of new phone sales, Android is even more dominant, powering more than 80% of the smartphones sold in China in the third quarter. In fact, Google's operating system is so dominant in China that the government has become concerned.

In a white paper released last spring, the Chinese government lamented Android's control of the market, noting that while modified versions of Android were the norm, the technology underpinning the mobile operating system remained in Google's control. Last week, the Chinese government unveiled COS -- China Operating System -- as an alternative to Android. Like Google's mobile operating system, it's based on Linux, but the direction and core technology remains in Chinese hands.

Apple dominates Google's operating system in the U.S.
In the U.S., Apple's mobile devices get far more use than their Android competitors. Third-party studies, in addition to Apple's own metrics, have shown a noticeable gap -- U.S. Android users, despite being in the majority, don't spend as much money on physical or digital goods, nor do they account for the majority of mobile Web traffic.

But this isn't hard to believe. Although Apple's iOS has less market share than Android in terms of smartphones, it isn't that far behind -- in recent quarters, Apple's market share has hovered near 40%, while Google's Android remains near 50%. Moreover, since 2010, Apple has sold tens of millions of iPads in the U.S., and though its market share has fallen, Apple remains the single largest tablet vendor.

Differences in the Chinese mobile market
Apple also dominates tablet sales in China, but tablets are far from popular. DigiTimes reports that there were just over 4 million tablets sold in China during the third quarter, and though Apple's iPad accounted for about half the sales, 2 million iPads in a quarter is hardly significant in a country of 500 million smartphones.

Outside of the flagship Samsung and HTC devices, many of the Android smartphones in the U.S. are low-end devices -- it isn't surprising that they don't get as much use. But again, the Chinese market is different: phablets, phones with screen sizes between 5 and 7 inches, are tremendously popular. According to IDC, these larger phones outsold both tablets and laptops combined in the Asia-Pacific region last year. As it's quite difficult to make a call on phone with a 7-inch screen, those buying these devices are probably using them more like tablets than like phones.

Then there's Xiaomi -- a company some have called the "Apple of China." Last quarter, according to Kantar Worldpanel, Xiaomi rose to become the single largest handset vendor in the country, accounting for nearly a quarter of the smartphones sold. Xiaomi's market share gains are likely attributable to the low cost of its phones; but though Xiaomi's handsets are cheap, they aren't poor quality.

Xiaomi's flagship handset, the Red Rice, is about on par with Apple's iPhone 5c. It has a 4.7-inch HD screen, a quad core processor, an 8MP camera, and 1 GB of RAM. But rather than sell the phone at a huge mark-up, Xiaomi sells it near cost -- around $130. Similar to, Xiaomi makes money by selling services, not hardware. That gives Xiaomi a huge price advantage over Apple, whose competing iPhone 5c costs over $700.

Apple's 57% claim
I doubt Tim Cook is outright fudging the numbers -- Apple's claim of 57% mobile browsing is more than likely accurate assuming certain parameters. Yet, the implied message -- that Apple is dominant in China -- is just not true.

If it was, then Chinese mobile developers wouldn't prefer Google's operating system, nor would Chinese firms shell out billions to acquire third-party Android app stores. Apple will continue to sell millions of iOS devices in China -- even more with its new China Mobile deal -- but for now, Apple remains a minority player.

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Read/Post Comments (14) | Recommend This Article (3)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

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  • Report this Comment On January 18, 2014, at 1:54 PM, Cintos wrote:

    Indeed the 57% number is puzzling given the massively lower share of iOS participation in China's sales metrics. But unit sales do not equate to actual on-line usage by the customer. Many devices are used as - surprise, phones - or used to playback media already on the phone ( read, "iPod"/movie viewer).

    Latest data from NPT shows that Apple has 42% of the smartphones owned in the US, against 26% for Samsung. Those numbers suggest that Android is running on nearly 60% of all smartphones. Despite that 60-40 split, market research showed that on Cyber Monday, iOS accounted for 22.4 percent of all online traffic, compared to 9.1 percent for Android. So Apple users are far more likely to actually use their devices online. As for actually buying something on Cyber Monday, the numbers are even more skewed: iOS sales reached 14.5 percent of all online sales, compared to 2.6 percent for Android. Perhaps the low-cost of Android "Smartphones" sold in China are bought by folks who don't have data plans, or are running on EDGE infrastructure.

  • Report this Comment On January 18, 2014, at 2:21 PM, jdmeck wrote:

    Always the Apple hater.

  • Report this Comment On January 18, 2014, at 2:41 PM, deasystems wrote:

    "Yet, the implied message -- that Apple is dominant in China -- is just not true."

    Okay, how's this, Sam? "Apple is the dominant smartphone in China. It's apparent that most Android phones are used merely as feature phones."


  • Report this Comment On January 18, 2014, at 2:41 PM, lrd555 wrote:

    If I recall correctly, Apple's making over $13 Billion in revenues per quarter in China. That's almost as much as Google makes per quarter in revenues altogether. That said, I couldn't give a crap about web surfacing share. If you can't monetize your market share, than it's worthless crap.

  • Report this Comment On January 18, 2014, at 2:56 PM, SimchaStein wrote:

    Try this link to see Apple's Mobile Browsing share. Please note it "Global" not just China.

    Sam now please show data, not just your suspicions.

  • Report this Comment On January 18, 2014, at 3:51 PM, zippero wrote:

    Sam is wrong again. Mobile browser activity needs at least 2.5G or faster service, and only 25% or so of China's total smartphone users even have such service. Of course, it's the richer Chinese who can afford the expensive data plans, and these richer Chinese are Apple's target market. It's no surprise then that Apple has 57% of the mobile Internet traffic in China, since Chinese Apple users also have the disposable income to actually afford the more expensive data plans that let's them do most of the browsing in China.

  • Report this Comment On January 18, 2014, at 4:08 PM, zippero wrote:

    Basically, a $150 Xiaomi Android phone without a data plan in China will use practically no data over a course of a month, while an $800 iPhone 5S in China will use several gigs a month. This is because the owner of the iPhone 5S is just a lot richer on average and has the disposable income to splurge on mobile browsing and app data that the $150 Xiaomi owner can never experience.

  • Report this Comment On January 18, 2014, at 4:13 PM, zippero wrote:

    The same goes for tablets as well in China. There mere popularity of phablets and non-iPad tablets in China does not necessarily indicate that all these cheap phablets (costing about $220 on average according to IDC) have robust data plans that actually allow their owners to engage in much mobile Internet browsing activity at all. Most of these cheap Chinese phablets and tablets don't even have regular data plans. They do have by-the-hour or by-the-day plans where you pay for them for one hour or for one day at a time. Thus, they don't really get the massive data usage seen on iPhones and iPads in China or anywhere else.

  • Report this Comment On January 18, 2014, at 4:22 PM, ugarfool wrote:

    iOS = iPhones AND iPads

    Tim Cook did not say iPhones account for 57% of all mobile browsing, he said iOS devices!

    Additionally, there are quite a few good arguments in other comments about why iOS is dominant in mobile browsing, from the socio-economic status of users and their ability to purchase internet/data plans to how devices are actually used by customers of the different platforms.

    This article is pure click-bate from the title to the details missing key analytical points.

  • Report this Comment On January 18, 2014, at 6:28 PM, GaryDMN wrote:

    Its hard to believe, but iPads outsell Android tablets in China. That may have something to do with the internet usage. The million of users that bought and brought their iPhones to China Mobile before they launched their 4G network and the iPhone, only had EDGE speeds (sub 1 Mbs), so browsing must have been painful.

  • Report this Comment On January 18, 2014, at 9:25 PM, thinkman wrote:

    This is an analytical website, did you elect hard facts?

  • Report this Comment On January 18, 2014, at 9:30 PM, thinkman wrote:

    That was supposed to be "expect", not "elect" (perhaps you could add "edit/delete" options on your comment page LIKE EVERY OTHER SITE ON THE INTERNET!).

    But while I'm here, I have to ask, based on the photo of the author of this article, when do you graduate High School?

  • Report this Comment On January 18, 2014, at 11:47 PM, tishlover wrote:

    at least Chines were able to hijack my iTunes account and spend at their will without Apple doing anything about it. will not spend another dime or link any financial source to iTunes. good luck Apple!!!!!

  • Report this Comment On January 19, 2014, at 1:08 AM, JaredPorter wrote:

    Tim Cook also reported that there were 500,000 app developers in China. I think this surprised many and foretells good things ahead for iOS.

    Google-enabled Android is actually banned in China, as I understand it. Therefore, Google derives little or no benefit from the China-based manufacturers employing Android.

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Sam Mattera

Sam has a love of all things finance. He writes about tech stocks and consumer goods.

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