Apple’s next big moneymaker is its biggest headache in China
For Apple, this summer is closing with good news and bad news.
On the one hand, its financials suggest that as iPhone sales plateau globally, it can count on software to spur growth. Revenue in Apple’s “Services” category—which includes sales in the App Store, as well as Apple Music subscriptions and other media—hit $7.27 billion for the three month-period ending July 1, making it the company’s second-largest business unit.
On the other hand, that growth is increasingly threatened in China, where Apple’s software ambitions face tough challenges as Beijing continues its efforts to wean the country off foreign technology.
The most recent incident came this week when Beijing-based law firm Dare & Sure announced it had filed a complaint (link in Chinese) to China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), which oversees antitrust issues, and the State Administration for Industry & Commerce (SAIC), alleging that Apple has been engaging in monopolistic behavior. Representing a group of 28 developers, the firm argues that Apple deletes apps without sufficient explanation, and that its standard 30% take on in-app purchases is unfair. In April, when the firm first announced it was looking for Chinese developers (link in Chinese) to potentially represent, it wrote:
“Some of Apple’s behavior when operating the App Store, when coupled with its absolute advantageous market position, will or already has produced a negative impact on market competition. If Apple cannot explain the reasoning behind this behavior, or cannot prove that this sort of behavior creates benefits in the market that make up for its negative impact, this sort of behavior ought to be subject to China’s anti-monopoly regulations.”
In response to the complaint, Apple said in a statement sent to Quartzthat the App Store “has published guidelines that apply equally to all developers in every country,” and added that it holds “workshops in China throughout the year” to help Chinese developers. It did not address the lawsuit directly.
The SAIC did not reply immediately to Quartz’s request for comment. The NDRC couldn’t be reached for comment.
It’s not clear if the complaint will turn into a case. It’s also not the first of its kind—in 2012, a group of iPhone owners filed a suit against Apple arguing that its 30% take from the App Store was anti-competitive, and the case has yet to close. But the suit marks one of several instances where Apple’s software business has come under pressure in China.
In late July, Apple removed dozens of VPN apps from China’s App Store due to government demands. While not a wholesale removal, the ban nevertheless follows the government’s wider crackdown on software that circumvents the so-called Great Firewall, which blocks access to websites like Google and Facebook.
In May, Chinese tech giant Tencent removed a button in its chat app WeChat that had allowed users to donate small sums of money to bloggers and media personalities. Apple argued that the button was in violation of its policy of taking 30% of from in-app purchases. It also came not long after WeChat launched an app store of its own, which, if it becomes successful, could compete against Apple’s.
Before those incidents, the government targeted other software offerings from Apple. In January it forced Apple to remove the New York Times app from the Chinese App Store. Last year, the government forced Apple to shut down its Chinese iBooks and iTunes movie stores.
Apple needs Service revenue from China just as much as from everywhere else, if not more. For its most recent earnings (and for the third quarter in a row), the Greater China region (which includes Taiwan and Hong Kong) remained the only part of the world where total revenues, which come overwhelmingly from iPhone sales, did not grow annually.
Apple has taken additional steps lately that might help smooth the course in China. Recently it announced it would open a data center in China, in swift compliance with the recently-implemented Cybersecurity Law. It also created a head of Greater China position, and appointed native Chinese-speaker and longtime Apple executive Isabel Ge Mahe to take on the role. As long as these incidents continue at the same pace, she’ll have her hands full.