One of the notable themes in the intensifying standoff between Huawei and the Trump administration has been the increasing lock the Chinese tech giant has on its domestic consumer market. Huawei is clearly China’s tech star—a homegrown world leader in its field. And despite restrictions that prevent fully licensed versions of Android and Google services being loaded onto its smartphones, China’s tech-hungry population enjoy using devices which have built such an international following. All of which has been seriously bad news for Apple.
Since the battle with Washington started, Huawei’s share of the Chinese smartphone market has grown from around 25% to approaching 40%. Overall, Huawei generates around 50% of its revenues in China—and although other domestic players like Vivo, Oppo and Xiaomi are still in the chase, it is not inconceivable that Huawei will further strengthen its domestic market share. Meanwhile, Apple’s share of China’s smartphone market has dropped to below 10% and shows little signs of improving.
But Apple does still enjoy a cachet in China—it remains an aspirational brand, a brand leader if not quite the innovator it was once upon a time. And so there was little surprise that the iPhone 11 launch generated significant social media attention in the country. According to Abacus, the new range of Apple devices “dominated discussions on Chinese social media—with eight of the top 20 hot searches on Weibo… and four of the top five trending questions on Q&A site Zhihu” focused on the brand.
Add all this together, though, and it’s little surprise that the Apple discussion morphed into an Apple versus Huawei discussion. Apple referenced Huawei’s devices as it lauded the performance of its latest chip—and this was an unusual move. It has been difficult to ignore recent announcements from Shenzhen around Huawei’s aspiration to lead the market for smartphone performance with a new range of AI chips for its next generation devices.
Apple knows that if it is to tackle China, it needs to deal with the Huawei issue, where the design playing field has significantly levelled out and China’s latest devices appear to be winning for enhanced hardware features including the quality of their camera technologies. Apple’s decision to compare itself with Huawei “means Huawei has become more powerful,” commented one Weibo user, although the design of the new device was mimicked by others, with a comparison to spiders doing the rounds.
Despite the viral comedy, there is a serious issue for both Apple and Huawei here. Apple needs its China share to maintain and ideally build. And Huawei needs the same. Its domestic market is its defence against international market share losses attributed to the U.S. blacklist and the loss of software—especially from Google.
Abacus reports that more than 70% of the 636,000 respondents [in a Weibo poll] chose the option saying they ‘won’t buy’ a new iPhone—only 12.5% said they would.” All of which is good news in Shenzhen and an issue in California.
Huawei’s Mate 30 launch is now just days away—its first smartphone absent U.S. tech. And while the company’s leading in-house chip will drive the device, there is no clarity as to how users outside China will take to a lack of Google software and services. The clever money is on an unlicensed, open source version of Android with user-friendly download shortcuts for Google Maps, YouTube, Gmail and the Play Store. But nothing is certain and that route is unproven at scale.
But, insiders at the Shenzhen giant describe the mood internally as buoyant. There seems to be a recognition that this split with U.S. tech could be a major win in the medium- to long-term, despite some short-term pain. And the domestic market will soften any immediate concerns around revenue traction for new models, even if there is a (temporary) setback internationally.
Huawei’s CEO Ren Zhengfei has described Apple as his “role model” and credited the Californian company as his inspiration and the market’s innovator-in-chief. Ren even went so far as to criticise any suggestion that his country would penalise Apple as part of the trade war. In truth, his company is doing all the penalising Apple can deal with right now through its lock on market share.