Apple’s 5G iPhone debut didn’t go as planned in the world’s biggest 5G market
The launch of Apple’s new 5G-enabled iPhone 12 on Tuesday promised to make a splash in China, the world’s largest 5G market. But Apple’s introduction of the phone didn’t go as planned.
Apple CEO Tim Cook revealed the new iPhone 12 from California over a live stream, marking the long-anticipated debut of Apple’s first phone with 5G capabilities.
“Today is the beginning of a new era for iPhone. Today, we’re bringing 5G to iPhone,” said Cook at Apple’s digital event day. “This is a huge moment for all of us, and we’re really excited.”
Five weeks ago, Apple said big Chinese social media sites like Tencent Video, Bilibili, Iqiyi, and Weibo would air Cook’s live stream. But on Tuesday, none of the sites carried it. Instead, Cook’s announcement was available to Chinese users only via Apple’s website, according to Bloomberg.
What content appears on the Chinese Internet and what doesn’t is a political matter in China because government censors police online content. It’s unclear, though, what caused the Apple live-stream snafu and whether or not it was deliberate. Apple declined to comment, and Tencent, Bilibili, Iqiyi, and Weibo did not respond to requests for comment on the matter.
Regardless of the reason, the iPhone 12’s botched introduction to China means Apple missed an opportunity to make a great first impression on the world’s most advanced 5G market. China has a far more developed 5G network than the U.S., making it a ripe market for the iPhone 12. Research firm Canalys forecast in September that China would account for 62% of all 5G smartphones sold globally in 2020.
In a nod to China, Apple displayed the logos for China’s three major carriers—China Telecom, China Mobile, and China Unicom—in discussing how the iPhone 12 can access different 5G networks around the world.
China is a ripe market for Apple for another reason: China’s top smartphone maker Huawei is in dire straits. Huawei said in September that it is running out of chips to produce new 5G smartphones because of fresh U.S. restrictions. Experts say Huawei may only have enough chips to produce phones through the end of this year. Huawei’s crisis is a chance for Apple to capture more of China’s smartphone market, which Huawei currently dominates with a 40% share.
Apple’s live-stream trouble on Tuesday will likely fuel ongoing speculation that the tech giant is on Beijing’s bad side. As the Trump administration has lashed out against Chinese tech giants like Huawei and ByteDance, experts have repeatedly pointed to Apple as a likely target for Beijing’s tit-for-tat retribution.
Experts told Fortune last month that even if Beijing has Apple in its sights, taking drastic action against the iPhone maker—like shutting down its supply chain in China—would inflict too much self-harm.
Instead, Beijing could rely on a broader “tool box” of responses to limit Apple’s growth in the country, such as promoting consumer boycotts or increasing bureaucratic requirements for its stores. Apple’s limited live stream on Tuesday raises the question of whether Beijing is dipping into that arsenal.
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