Apple faces threat from China, bellwether in battle against Android

Without a really cheap iPhone, Apple's app ecosystem is at risk, says analyst

Apple faces a threat from an unexpected quarter: Chinese developers crafting Android apps, an analytics firm said today.

Chinese developers build nearly two-thirds of the mobile apps used by Chinese consumers -- an even higher percentage than U.S. developers contribute to U.S. consumers' app usage patterns -- illustrating not only the difficulty outsiders face in breaking into the massive market, but reinforcing one analyst's claim that Apple will face a crisis next year if it continues to shed smartphone share.

According to Flurry, a U.S.-based mobile analytics firm, U.S. developers are losing their grip on the mobile app ecosystem, and have accounted for just 36% of all smartphone and tablet apps published so far this year. That's down from 45% over the last two years.

The U.S.'s contribution to the overall app market -- Android and iOS -- looked better when Flurry weighted the data by time spent with apps: There, U.S. developers accounted for 70%. But that, too, was smaller than in years prior, when U.S. programmers held app usage shares of 75% and 76% in 2011 and 2012, respectively.

While Flurry's data was meant to push U.S. developers to think globally -- something they've not done nearly as successfully as those in other countries -- it also revealed an interesting trend in China.

China, said Simon Khalaf, president and CEO of Flurry, is not a big software exporter at the moment. But that will change.

"The software export market [for China] is nascent now, it doesn't look like a big software exporter yet," said Khalaf in an interview. "But Chinese developers are starting to see some adoption in Japan and Korea. That's their focus now: CJK [China, Japan and Korea]."

And Chinese apps, localized for export, will continue to grab global share by expanding into other neighboring markets, including Southeast Asia, India and Indonesia. "The sheer numbers in India ... that's a lot of market [for Chinese apps]," said Khalaf.

The Chinese maneuver may seem inconsequential to Apple at first glance, but Khalaf begged to differ.

That's because Chinese consumers are more likely to be using an Android-based smartphone, one tied to the Android ecosystem, than they are to own an iPhone and rely on Apple's app market. In earlier studies by Flurry, the firm pegged the Android-iOS split in China at about 2 to 1, with Apple's installed base accounting for just 35% of the country's total. The remaining was all Android.

And Chinese developers, like all developers, follow the money. If Android dominates the installed base, Android is what developers will write for.

"When you look at the apps being submitted to Flurry, you do see an interesting shift happening, with Chinese developers releasing Android and iOS apps at the same time," said Khalaf. "But an 'Android-first' release could be the next shift down the road."

And that's where things start to get ugly for Apple. Or so Benedict Evans, an analyst with U.K.-based Enders Analysis, has argued.

In a report published in early August, Evans maintained that without a low-priced iPhone in its portfolio -- and by low, he meant as low as $200 to $300 -- Apple risked losing mind share among developers. In other words, Apple needs market share as much as profit margin for the iPhone to continue being a credible smartphone brand.

Like Khalaf, Evans saw the danger stemming from developers' decisions.

"Developers are starting to move from creating new products on the basis 'iPhone, then maybe Android' to 'iPhone and then Android' or even 'iPhone and Android at the same time,'" Evans said in his report. "We do not see Android becoming a first choice this year, but it is no longer optional for any publisher seeking real reach. If total Android engagement moves decisively above iOS, the fact that iOS will remain big will be beside the point -- it will move from first to first-equal and then perhaps second place on the roadmap."

If that happens, Apple is in a world of hurt.

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