SHANGHAI (Reuters) – The highly anticipated release of the iPhone 5 in China, Apple Inc’s second-biggest market, failed to stop the recent share slide of the world’s most valuable technology company on Friday, and analysts said Apple’s longer-term China hopes may hinge on a partnership with the country’s top telecoms carrier.
Apple’s latest iPhone, sporting a larger 4-inch screen and 4G capability, was launched in the United States and 30 other countries in September, when the company sold more than 5 million of the devices in the first three days.
Apple’s shares, however – once among the most desirable of portfolio holdings – have headed steadily lower since September on growing uncertainty about the company’s ability to fend off unprecedented competition. This year saw a surge in sales of Amazon.com Inc’s cheaper Kindle Fire and Microsoft Corp’s first foray into the tablet market with its Surface.
Unlike the crowds that the iPhone 5 debut drew in many cities around the world since September, just one person was waiting at the Apple store in Shanghai’s financial district when its doors opened at 9 a.m. on Friday.
“Some of our Chinese sources do not expect the iPhone 5 to do as well as the iPhone 4S,” UBS analyst Steven Milunovich wrote in a note to clients.
China is Apple’s fastest-growing market, bringing in about 15 percent of total revenue.
“In absolute terms, this (iPhone 5) launch will certainly result in strong sales for Apple in China. However, in relative terms, I don’t believe it will move the needle enough in market share,” said Shiv Putcha, a Mumbai-based analyst at Ovum, a global technology consultant.
Apple shares were down 3.6 percent at $510.55 on the Nasdaq on Friday afternoon. The stock has lost a quarter of its value since hitting a high of $705.07 on September 21, as it faces increasing competition from phones using Google Inc’s Android operating system.
In addition, analysts cut their forecasts for shipments of the iPhone.
Jefferies analyst Peter Misek trimmed his iPhone shipment estimates for the January-March quarter, saying that the technology company had started cutting orders to suppliers to balance excess inventory.
Misek cut his first-quarter iPhone sales estimate to 48 million from 52 million and gross margin expectations for the company by 2 percentage points to 40 percent.
UBS Investment Research cut its price target on Apple stock to $700 from $780 on lower expected iPhone and iPad shipments for the March quarter.
The brokerage said it was modeling more conservative growth for Apple after making supply chain checks that revealed that fewer iPhones were being built.
The iPhone is currently sold through Apple’s seven stores, resellers and through China Unicom and China Telecom – which together have fewer than half the mobile subscribers of bigger rival China Mobile.
“Apple’s market share declined because of the transition between the iPhone 4S and 5. Their market share will recover (with the iPhone 5), but if you don’t have China Mobile, the significant market share gains will be very difficult,” said Huang Leping, an analyst at Nomura in Hong Kong.
Apple has been in talks about a tie-up with China Mobile for four years.
A deal with China’s biggest carrier is seen as crucial to improve Apple’s distribution in a market of 290 million users – which is forecast to double this year. But the company’s failure to strike a deal with China Mobile means it is missing out on a large number of phone users.
As the China pie grows, Apple’s sales increase, but without China Mobile, it is losing ground at a faster rate compared with other brands.