Here’s why the iPhone can’t compete in India

Here’s why the iPhone can’t compete in India

India is consistently being bandied as the next major growth market for all smartphone companies, but there is one company that’s really struggling to crack India. The company in question is the most valuable one in the world -- Apple.

According to CounterPoint’s latest report, Apple’s market share has dropped to an all-time low in India, with its share of the smartphone market dropping to below 2%. The problem is a combination of the nature of the Indian smartphone consumer, Indian laws and Apple’s stubbornness.

This quarter Xiaomi and Samsung have emerged as the defacto leaders with their combined market share in India pushing 30%. Samsung managed to regain its lead in India with a share of 29%, up from 24% in the previous quarter, as per a report by Canalys. Xiaomi also grew to 28% market share in the country.

While Tim Cook has reiterated often that India is a key market for the Cupertino-based giant, Apple has hit a new low in India, which is clearly the most important smartphone market outside of China.

Pricing doesn’t allow Apple to compete for market share in India


The problem for the company is that India is primarily a sub Rs 15,000 market, while the cheapest iPhone – the iPhone SE costs Rs 26,000, and runs three-year-old hardware. Apple doesn’t make cheap products because it doesn’t want to be perceived as a mass market smartphone brand.

The Indian market is wildly different from the one in the United States, Europe and even China, which is Apple’s favourite market off-late. These markets are dominated by the operators and their contracts, where users can get the latest and greatest iPhone for about the same Rs 15,000 amount, put in as down payment.

The space for phones that cost more than Rs 30,000 is just 4% of the Indian smartphone market. And that is commanded by OnePlus, followed by Samsung. Even if Apple were to get 100% market share in the premium space, it would still only command 4% of the market.

Even when competing on price, older iPhones like the 6S and 7 lose out to newer phones from companies like OnePlus on both marketing and also technical capability. Indians tend to buy phones on the basis of specifications and even some of the newer models lose out to brands like OnePlus in the premium segment as the iPhone 6S and 7 models are perceived to be inferior.

Hardware disadvantage

Apple’s hardware disadvantage swells up when one talks about the cheapest iPhone models in this country. Apple simply doesn’t have a product in that price bracket, the sub-Rs 20,000 zone, and that’s the price point where the market for new smartphones is exploding.

While the cheapest iPhone, the SE, costs Rs 26,000, it’s not the best selling iPhone here. It is the iPhone 6, which first popped up in 2014...and here we are in 2018.

There are two reasons for this -- first, the iPhone 6 has a bigger screen (4.7-inch) which is more to the liking of Indian users; and second, design-wise, it’s not too dissimilar from the iPhone 8 which came out at the fag end of 2017.

With the entry of Reliance Jio in India in late 2016, Indians have developed a voracious appetite for consuming video on the go. The iPhone SE, which uses the design of the iPhone 5 and 5S, has a rather small 4-inch screen. Newer phones like the Redmi Note 5 have much larger 5.99-inch screens. That’s a difference of 2-inches and considering mobile video, it's a huge one.

The iPhone SE and iPhone 6, which are the two cheapest iPhones in India also have dated cameras. Nowadays, phones like the Honor 9 Lite and Redmi Note 5 Pro also offer dual cameras with an iPhone X-like bokeh mode -- something these older, cheaper iPhones can’t hope to match.

Network conditions in India are often quite poor, connectivity wise, which results in smartphones consuming more battery. Apple’s iPhones have never been known for battery life. The most affordable iPhone in India (iPhone SE) has a meagre 1,624mAh battery, while phones half its price are pushing battery packs that are more than double the size.

iPhones also don’t offer hardware features that are popular in emerging markets like ours. For instance, there is no support for dual SIM cards, and there is no support for expandable memory. With newer models like the iPhone 7, iPhone 8 and iPhone X, there isn’t even a headphone jack -- something competitors like Samsung and OnePlus are providing to customers in the premium segment.

Apple hasn’t been able to push its design as a premium advantage either, as Chinese smartphone manufacturers have aped iPhone-like designs on almost all their phones. In fact, the design of the iPhone X has been democratised by Chinese smartphone makers.

For instance, the iPhone X-style notch display can be found even on new phones like the Honor 9N that starts at just Rs 13,999 while offering dual cameras on not only the back but also for selfies, and also providing a battery that’s almost twice as big as the iPhone SE.

Even their software is designed in a way that Android looks more like iOS. Android modifications from vendors like Huawei, Xiaomi, Oppo and Vivo follow the same basic iOS-like design language.

Software disadvantage

It’s bad enough that many Android smartphone makers have designed their software to mimic the look and feel of iOS, but Apple’s problems are compounded by the fact that its own services perform poorly in India or are non-existent.

Apple Maps is perhaps the biggest no-show. It doesn’t do turn-by-turn navigation in India and its mapping coverage is abysmal in the country. It is a matter of fact that Apple Maps can’t be used in India as a reliable tool for commuting.

Apple Pay isn’t available in India at a time where digital payments are taking off in the country. Paytm and Google’s Tez payments systems are taking off in India massively. Samsung launched Samsung Pay in India last year.

Apple Pay is dependent on NFC, while Samsung Pay uses a combination of NFC and magnetic secure transaction (MST), which mimics the magnetic signal a credit or debit card makes to a POS machine.

Siri, on most days doesn’t understand the Indian accent as well as the Google Assistant, and nor can it do much. Heck, Microsoft’s Cortana and Amazon’s Alexa do a better job and this is despite the fact that Apple was the first company to deploy a virtual assistant.

While Apple’s services hobble on its own trophy -- the iPhone -- its competitors -- Google, Amazon and Microsoft have their services performing better on iOS. For mapping, most people use Google Maps. For search, Google Search becomes the default, and for productivity, Microsoft’s Office crushes Apple’s iWork apps.

Rarely, you’re using Apple software on the iPhone in India. Even Apple Music, which is one of the rare examples of an Apple service doing well in the country, has been flanked by local competition like, Jio music, Wynk and Saavn. All of whom have a free tier.

On older iPhones, Apple’s iOS updates have also crippled the experience of the iPhone. A couple of years ago, there used to be a strong argument in favour of the iPhone as it would perform well for over two years. Apple’s recent updates have made older iPhones inferior in comparison to newer Android phones that cost the same. Apple is addressing this issue in this year's iOS 12 update, which makes huge performance improvements to older iPhones, but it could be too little too late.

The app store also doesn't make life easy for users as it demands a credit card for a user to even download free apps. That's not the case on the Google Play store.

Apple has been late in localising services for India

The larger issue here is that Apple isn’t localising its services for India in the way it has attempted to for China. This is indicative of the fact that Apple hasn’t taken the time or put enough resources behind localising its services for this country. Samsung and Huawei have R&D centres in India customising services for the market. Xiaomi also prioritises and customises products for India.

Apple opened an App Accelerator in Bangalore and a facility for Apple Maps in Hyderabad only in 2016. Google has had software and services being developed out of India since the mid-2000s, while Microsoft has been in India since the early 90’s. This has, in turn, inhibited Apple’s ability to quickly pivot.

Its biggest competitor, Google, on a platform level, makes products for India. Google CEO Sundar Pichai said last year, “India shapes how we build products. If something works in India it will work globally.” And this philosophy can be seen in the customisations that Google has made to core services like Android, Maps, YouTube, Search and even payments.

Its next billion division has made “Go” editions of Android, YouTube, Search and Maps, which are designed to work better on low power phones and poorer network conditions. They have even invested in KaiOS that powers feature phones like the Jio Phone creating its own versions of YouTube, Google Search and Assistant in India.

For Apple to replicate its China success in India, it has to do a lot more than what it did in China. Even in China, Apple’s momentum has slowed so it has a steep slope to climb there as well.

In China, Google and Amazon are almost non-existent. In India, they are big players. Apple isn’t able to compete with Google with regards to services. Most people use Google services which are part of all Android phones and one doesn’t need to buy a comparatively expensive iPhone to enjoy them.

Apple and the Indian government: Frenemies?

Apple hasn’t seen eye to eye with the Indian government for long. Apple expected concessions for manufacturing in India. It never made headway with that. While it lobbied for tax concessions -- brands like Xiaomi, Oppo and Huawei all got on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Make in India’ programme which grants locally assembled phones some tax concessions.

Only recently, Apple has started manufacturing both the iPhone SE and iPhone 6S in India. There are some reports that Apple has locked in a deal with one of its ODM vendors to manufacture even the iPhone X, but that’s not happening right now.

The price variance between the iPhone X and the new Samsung Galaxy S9+ is quite startling. The iPhone X tops out at a whopping Rs 1,07,999 while the latest Galaxy S9+ tops out at Rs 69,000 for its top-end model in India. That’s almost a gap of Rs 40,000 which ironically is the cost of the 128GB model of the OnePlus 6 which is currently the best selling smartphone in the premium segment in this country.

In the US, the iPhone X costs $1,149 which is around Rs 79,000 and the Galaxy S9+ costs $792 (around Rs 55,000). This points towards the fact that India is the most expensive place to purchase an iPhone and also the fact that Samsung’s phones have a huge price advantage in India that they don’t enjoy even in the US. And a lot of this is due to the fact that the S9+ is assembled in Samsung’s factory in Greater Noida (a satellite town outside New Delhi) which also happens to be the largest smartphone manufacturing plant in the world.

The iPhone is further hobbled by the fact that it has an international warranty and India has a bubbling grey market. It’s totally possible for someone to buy an imported iPhone for much lesser than the official price in India and still enjoy global warranty on the product.

For years, Apple has been hoping to get permissions to set up its iconic Apple Stores in India. Indian law stipulates that single brand retail can only happen when products use 30% raw materials that are locally sourced -- that’s a hard problem to solve for Apple. That’s led to it selling its phones via resellers who often have discounted products to move inventory, thereby diluting Apple’s premium identity.

In order to move more affordable iPhones, the Indian government has also rejected Apple’s plan for selling refurbished iPhones in India. More recently, Apple has been deadlocked in a stalemate with Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) in India over the installation of its spam reporting app on the iPhone.

The telecom regulator has been reported to be taking extreme steps which could result in the iPhone being blocked from telecom networks in India if Apple doesn’t play ball, but that seems to be changing. An update in iOS 12 could possibly pave the way for an extension in the iMessage app for the TRAI to push out its spam reporting feature.

The big takeaway is that Apple’s brand positioning makes its life hard enough in a market where feature phone sales are still growing, however, it hasn’t helped its own cause by not investing in India in a timely manner and also not adopting and partaking quickly enough in initiatives of the Indian government which has put it at a disadvantage with regards to lobbying.