Two things generally go against Apple in India. One, Indians tend to look for value proposition in their phones, which often means great features for a low price, the kind of combo that Xiaomi has been recently delivering to smitten Indians. Two, the country has always been viewed as a primo stomping ground for Android, especially with the ultra-cheap Android One and other super-successful variants launched by Motorola, Xiaomi, Asus, Micromax, and Lenovo over the last year.
So it comes as a total surprise that Apple basically cleaned house in India for the financial year ending March 2015, posting a purported $1 billion in revenue -- a solid 40 percent increase over the previous year, and three times the sales booked in 2011-12. According to Cybermedia Research, those revenue figures came from the sale of 1.3 million phones in FY 2015, versus the 928,000 hawked in the previous year.
So, what on earth is going on in the land of cheap phones, where Apple has traditionally been a laggard?
Well, Apple hasn't exactly been sitting quiet these last couple of years. It launched an aggressive and effective trade-in program in India in 2013, and has worked hard to offer financing assistance for its pricey handsets. It has also been working hard to build and support a network of 500 resellers as it tries to spread its brand deeper into the hinterland. Many smaller, tier-2 towns outside of the big five or seven, like Chandigarh and Jaipur, have a newly monied class eager to spend money (earned largely from the sale of agricultural land) on SUVs, flat-screen TVs, and cutting-edge smartphones, and Apple will be eyeing their wallets keenly.
There is another trend that is beginning to become clearer within India's phone landscape: Android, once the mainstay in all categories, seems to have lost its grip on the premium end, with brands like Samsung and HTC gradually losing market share. Apple, which has long had a devoted band of loyalists in India, has simply convinced many more of the same ilk that if you want to shell out around Rs 50,000 ($800) for a smartphone, the only brand worth considering these days is Apple.
This strategy seems to have worked remarkably well during the Indian iPhone 6 launch last year. The company reportedly flogged more than 100,000 iPhone 6 Plus handsets, and upwards of 300,000 iPhone 6 phones in India in FY 2015, thus contributing to Apple's record year in the country. These may be a mere trifle from a global perspective -- India contributes just 1 percent of sales -- but it is growing rapidly, and will be a key component to Apple's future success in emerging markets.
At this scorching pace, Apple's fortunes in India may just mirror its experience in China, where the iPhone 6 was the top-selling smartphone in urban parts of the country during the three months ending in February. And that's something that nobody would have put money down on even as recently as three years ago, when the company's sales were middling at best.