In general, iPhones have sold better in the United States than in other countries. In fact, the iPhone had a 48.1 percent US marketshare at the end of October, versus Android's 46.7 percent, according to the latest data from Kantar Worldpanel.
In China, however, the iPhone's share is just 20 percent, compared with Android's 67.5 percent, according to the Kantar report. In fact, the iPhone has a 20 percent penetration or less in many countries, including Germany, France, and Italy, according to Kantar.
By comparison, IDC reported that three out of four smartphones shipped globally in the third quarter of 2012 were powered by Android. Price is one reason for this, particularly in areas where most consumers use prepaid plans and must pay the entire cost of the device up front. Android devices are available at a much wider variety of price points than the iPhone. They are available from many different manufacturers and are promoted by many more carriers.
In China, the iPhone is available only from China Unicom and China Telecom, both of which just began selling the iPhone 5 today. China Unicom said last week that it had already received 300,000 pre-orders for the phone, which could help boost Apple's marketshare.
Apple also recently opened its sixth retail store in China.
But what would help more is if Apple struck a deal with China Mobile, the largest carrier in that country (and the world). A partnership is being negotiated, but the two sides are having trouble working out the subsidy deal, according to the research firm Trefis.
Despite this, China already represents 15 percent of Apple's total profits. The country accounted for $5.7 billion of the company's revenue in the most recent quarter and $23.8 billion in the previous year, Apple said.
One possible reason for Apple's success there: Even without an official partnership with China Mobile, customers can use unlocked iPhones on the carrier's network. In fact, according to China Mobile, 15 million of its subscribers are using iPhones.
China is still in the early stages of smartphone adoption, but it has already overtaken the US as the world's largest smartphone market, Trefis reports. So even though Apple has only 20 percent of the market, that's one-fifth of a huge opportunity.
There are some lessons here for other global consumer brands.
First, even high-end products with relatively low market penetration rates can do well in China, because of the sheer size of the population.
Second, it pays to treat the customer well. Chinese customers don't get an inferior version of the iPhone; they get the same product everyone else gets. Similarly, the Apple stores in China reflect the corporation's global image, rather than prevailing local standards.
It's not just high-end electronics and luxury goods companies that benefit from this approach, either. A few years ago, when international restaurant chains were beginning to make a significant impact in China, KFC, Pizza Hut, and McDonald's stood out from local competition by having uniform standards of service, products, and cleanliness that were typically significantly higher than those of locally owned establishments.
Regional chains quickly copied this approach, but the foreign players had already gained a substantial lead. Of course, the major beneficiaries were the Chinese consumers themselves, who quickly became accustomed to being able to get friendly service and clean bathrooms.
Twenty years earlier, I saw the same process happening in Russia, where a new McDonald's outlet in Moscow drew record crowds. Sure, part of it was the novelty of eating an American lunch instead of (as many had feared) becoming lunch themselves for the US after the end of the Cold War. But I think most of it had to do with the fact that you were treated politely. The staff even smiled.
— Maria Korolov is president of Trombly International, an editorial services company that provides coverage of emerging technologies and markets. She has been a journalist for more than 20 years.