Apple made a subtle overture to China during its iPhone event on Tuesday as part of its long-term goal to win over the giant market. During a segment presenting the revamped Apple Watch, Apple COO Jeff Williams made a quick reference to WeChat, a messaging app popular in China. “Third-party apps like WeChat work over cellular as well,” he said while discussing the watch’s LTE features. Out of the more than two million third-party apps out there, Williams only called out WeChat.
So why did Williams bring up WeChat and not WhatsApp, another globally successful messaging app? Williams’ mention of an app popular in China and unfamiliar to many Americans was deliberate. Willy Shih, a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School who co-authored a case study on WeChat in 2015, says, “Of all the apps he could mention, why WeChat? Because every Chinese consumer that I know or have seen uses WeChat more than e-mail, more than texting. It is by far the biggest social media platform in China, so Apple has to play.”
This is far from the first time in recent memory that Apple has paid tribute to its third biggest global market, which is lagging only a few percentage points behind Europe. And it’s the second time Apple has linked its watch with the popular Chinese messaging app: in 2015, when the Apple Watch first launched, Apple exec Kevin Lynch demonstrated WeChat on it.
More recently, at WWDC this year, Apple demoed Siri translating English into Chinese with the phrase, “What are the most popular dishes in your restaurant?” Apple’s interest in serving China has also gone uncomfortably further than casual tributes. In July, the company removed several VPN apps from the iTunes store that helped netizens circumvent China’s internet firewall, citing a violation of local laws.
Although Apple seems to be courting China harder over this past year, its foothold in the country doesn’t reflect its efforts. Apple has gradually built up a presence in China since 2008, amassing 41 stores in a diverse range of provinces and not just in major urban hubs Beijing and Shanghai. But this year, the iPhone didn’t even make it to fourth place in popularity in China as locals favored domestic brand Xiaomi instead.
It’s not just Xiaomi that Apple has to compete against, but Huawei, Oppo, and Vivo as well, which came in first, second, and third in popularity this year. When the iPhone first came to China, in late 2009, one of these companies, Xiaomi, hadn’t even been founded yet, while another, Vivo, had just been created. In 2015, the momentum peaked, and China became the biggest driver behind Apple’s insane growth earnings.