In China, growing evidence that Apple’s wares are no longer worthy of cloning

“The latest iPhone 5,” says the sign.
“The latest iPhone 5,” says the sign.
Image: AP
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Apple may be the second most popular luxury brand among male Chinese millionaires, but there is growing evidence that mainstream Chinese are losing their taste for iPhone knock-offs. (Apple’s sales of its real products have been booming in China, however.)

Since there is no official record of sales of knock-off or grey market iPhones, the evidence is necessarily circumstantial. But gadget lovers who live in China are reporting that, unlike the iPhone 4, which was so popular it led to at least one riot, the iPhone 5 hasn’t inspired as many copies as previous iPhones.

That’s not to say that iPhone 5 clones running Google’s Android operating system reconfigured to resemble Apple’s iOS operating system don’t exist. Here’s one sporting a “Safiri” web browser, and low-quality models cost as little as $47.

But on a trip to one of China’s “phone cities,” which are warrens of mobile phone stalls packed together in small shopping arcades throughout China, GizChina’s Andi Skyes recently discovered piles of unlocked, gray market iPhones selling for only about $50 more than they would in the US. Alongside these real iPhones, vendors sold knockoffs, not of iPhones, but of Android-powered Xiaomi M2 smartphones. Xiaomi is a popular made-in-China brand that has been called the Apple of China.

Former copyists begin to improvise

GooPhone i5, a convincing iPhone 5 knockoff
Image: GooPhone

The best iPhone knockoffs in China are made by a company called GooPhone. The company’s clones of the bodies of Apple’s iPhones are so perfect that their devices would be indistinguishable from Apple’s own models were it not for the giant “GooPhone” logo on the back. And that’s telling: GooPhone doesn’t want to fool consumers into thinking they’re buying an iPhone; rather, GooPhone wants consumers to know that they are getting the best Android-powered, iPhone-like device money can buy.

Brands that were previously known only as copyists have gotten so good at this game that they are even “improving” on Apple’s designs. For example, despite the evidence of overwhelming consumer demand for large smartphones and even supergiant “phablets,” Apple has been reluctant to release a larger phone of its own. So perennial iPhone cloner JiaYu is rolling out a sort of iPhone 5-plus, with a bigger screen (4.5 inches versus 4 inches in the iPhone 5) and a stainless-steel body.

The one thing all these knockoffs can’t clone is Apple’s iOS operating system—and the all-important seamless access to Apple’s app store. And in the long run, that enormous pool of developers, drawn by the superior profits that can be earned on Apple’s phones and tablets, is what keeps Apple competitive even in China.