What Apple is up against in two growing mobile markets: China and Brazil

Apple(s AAPL) sells tens of millions of iPhones every quarter, but its biggest challenge is expanding the reach of the iPhone in markets where smartphones are incredibly expensive and new to a lot of potential customers. At the Dive into Mobile conference on Monday in New York City, two companies represented onstage offered stark examples of how Apple’s model, which it has nearly perfected in established markets, may require some adaptation: China’s high-end handset maker Xiaomi and Brazil-based wireless carrier Movile.

Xiaomi is selling high-end smartphones in China and is doing that in a way that essentially takes Apple’s own playbook and adapts it for a more price-conscious buyer. The company sold 7.2 million smartphones in China last year and plans to sell double that this year.

Taking cues from Apple

China-flag-Apple-logoIts recipe for success will sound familiar: it designs all the major apps on the phone as well as the hardware, uses all the latest chipsets (from Nvidia) and memory tech (from Samsung) and Foxconn does all the assembly. It also relies on longer update cycles: about a year passes before new hardware is released — there are no rapid-fire updates every few months. And when it lets buyers know the new phone is ready for sale on its website, customers swarm. When its latest device, the Mi 2 went on sale last year, 200,000 handsets sold out in two minutes, according to Xiaomi Co-founder and President Bin Lin.

A huge obvious difference between what Xiaomi is trying to do with its Mi phones and what Apple is doing with the iPhone: Xiaomi is building this all on Android.(s GOOG) It’s saving costs on a marketing budget (it has none, just advertises on Sina Weibo) but it saves itself a lot of money on production by getting the base OS for free. And it can then offer the phones for cheaper as well: Mi phones cost about the equivalent of $260. And, Lin noted, he’s competing with smartphones, including Apple’s, that “sell for twice that” in China.

Apple is desperate to crack the Chinese market, and it is gaining some momentum: CEO Tim Cook said sales in Greater China saw triple-digit growth in the final quarter of 2012. But Xiaomi is tapping into a need for something that Apple so far cannot: much less expensive phones that still have a similar vertically integrated approach that tends to create the best kind of user experience.

The handset maker has also figured out how to work in a market that relies heavily on unsubsidized phones — Lin said about 70 percent of the Chinese market is unlocked phones not subsidized by carriers. In developed markets Apple can get away with charging $600 for an unlocked phone, but in developing markets, it’s easy to see how the iPhone’s higher price may be a status symbol for some, but for those that can’t afford it, pretty much out of reach.

Cracking the Latin America market

In Latin America, Apple also faces an uphill battle in countries like Movile’s home of Brazil. Android phones and iPhones are still about 20 percent of the market, Fabricio Bloiso Rocha, Movile’s CEO, said on Monday. The rest is made up of basic feature phones. The reason: all electronics, especially smartphones, are incredibly expensive in Brazil.

movile“Expensive in Brazil is not $200, it’s $2,000,” Rocha said. An iPhone is about 30 times more expensive in his country than in the U.S. because of “taxes, taxes and the mystery of the Brazilian economy,” he said. As a result, carriers like his focus right now on providing service for inexpensive prepaid phones (often just feature phones) with a la carte services sold bundled with data: things like mobile payments, video subscription services, food ordering services and more.

How does the iPhone fit into a picture like that? Big reform is coming to Brazilian taxes soon, Rocha says, so he believes there will be a place for smartphones to grow over the next 18 months in the country. But even then, he said, “I love the iOS experience. It’s the best UX, best product overall. But for Latin America, to invest there, you have to go Android because price is very important.”

Brazil is not directly representative of all of Latin America, but it’s the biggest and most populous country and represents a huge chunk of potential growth for the iPhone in the future. User trends in Brazil are the kind of thing Apple has to consider when broadening the iPhone and whether a lower-priced device makes sense to crack these markets sooner than later.