More evidence the iPhone 4 is Apple’s key to emerging markets

Android(s GOOG) and Samsung still dominate the Chinese smartphone market. But Apple’s iPhone(s AAPL) is making steady progress lately, and it’s all due to the three-year-old iPhone 4.

IDC’s China Mobile Phone Quarterly Tracker report (via AppleInsider) for the first quarter of this year pegs Apple’s marketshare in the country at 9 percent, or 78 million phones sold. Yes, that’s still quite small, especially compared with Samsung’s 19 percent. But sales, specifically of the cheapest handset Apple sells, the iPhone 4, grew 211 percent in the past year. The Chinese market overall grew 117 percent in that same time period, according to IDC.

This strategy is something Apple has slowly figured out in China and other emerging smartphone markets. Sure, there’s a decent amount of brand-new and pricey iPhone 5 models Apple can sell to the brand-conscious growing upper classes in the country. But by emphasizing a device that has the iPhone name on it but doesn’t come with a premium price, Apple has demonstrated that customers are responding.

It’s seen the same dynamics — with added incentives — in India as well. So even though Apple isn’t selling its latest and priciest model, it is beginning to make inroads into the two largest countries and most important emerging markets when it comes to people buying their first smartphone. But clearly it has a lot more work to do too.

The iPhone 4 is just the present stand-in for Apple’s cheapest phone. When Apple releases its next iPhone model — be it the iPhone 5S or 6 or whatever — if recent tradition holds, the iPhone 4S will be bumped down to take the place of the cheapest/free on-contract device. Unless Apple does something crazy — like start marketing a totally new device that is an iPhone, that is less pricey than the latest model, and is also not two to three years old.