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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST: We're going to shift our tech attention now to the latest phase in the smartphone revolution. While the idea of having a small high-powered computer in your pocket is old news here in the U.S., smartphone is only beginning to crack lots of other markets around the world, big markets. The next billion people who get online are likely to do it on a mobile device.

As NPR's Steve Henn reports, this trend has left Apple, the company that more or less created the modern smartphone, in an awkward spot.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: For me, a good number can sing. And the numbers about smartphones in China are kind of amazing. Next year, analysts expect Chinese consumers to buy 235 million new smartphones. Think about that. It's roughly twice as many as Americans are likely to buy. Almost as many smartphones are going to be sold in China this year as PCs sold anywhere in the world. And this mobile revolution won't just be happening in China,

CHRIS JONES: China, Brazil, Russia, India.

HENN: Chris Jones is a global market analyst at Canalys.

JONES: Those are the four obvious emerging markets, and they're the biggest ones. But it's also in places like Indonesia and Southeast Asia.

HENN: In the next few years, hundreds of millions of people in these countries will be getting smartphones and getting online for the first time.

JONES: And so is the rest of Latin America and Africa. So there's an enormous opportunity there in the emerging markets.

HENN: The social implications of this are going to be enormous. But all of this begins as a business proposition. And for Apple, this opportunity is, well, complicated.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Ever had a really cool dream?

HENN: Apple's business model is kind of like Tiffany's. Basically, it makes expensive luxury goods.

(SOUNDBITE OF IPHONE ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Now, my iPhone knows not to ring unless it's important.

HENN: By catering to desires many of us didn't even know we had, Apple makes a big profit on every iPhone and iPad it sells. And this model works great in the U.S. or, say, Germany.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

HENN: But the vast majority of the next billion people who buy smartphones are probably not going to be able to afford one of Apple's current products.

SARAH ROTMAN EPPS: They don't really have products that regular people, on the streets of Vietnam or Indonesia or the Philippines or Turkey, can afford.

HENN: So Sarah Rotman Epps, an analyst at Forrester says, Apple faces a choice.

EPPS: Apple sells luxury within reach. And the question is, will they extend that reach to customers in the developing world?

HENN: Apple could create a line of products that are more affordable, but that's not such a simple business decision. Right now, Apple makes hundreds of dollars on almost every gadget it sells. Selling millions or hundreds of millions of cut-price iPhones would push Apple's margins down. It might have to compromise on quality. It could damage its brand.

But the other option, largely turning its back on almost a billion people who are about to get online for the first time, isn't really very appealing, either.

EPPS: Of course, you can build a successful business targeting a very small number of consumers, if that's what you want to do. I don't think, though, that that jives with how Apple sees itself as a company.

HENN: And to be fair, Apple sells a lot more stuff in the developing world than it used to. In 2007, it did just over $1 billion of business in the developing world. In 2011, sales there broke 20 billion. And last year, sales in China rose more than 67 percent. But as big as those numbers are, these markets are growing even faster. Globally, Apple has not gone after the masses.

EPPS: I think Apple has been sending very clear signals that they don't expect the rate of growth that they have had to continue forever. At the same time, I don't think it's reasonable to assume that Apple is done innovating. And I think you have to expect that they'll have new products out.

HENN: And Sarah Rotman Epps says, maybe some of those products will be focused on a different kind of global customer than Apple has targeted in the past. Steve Henn, NPR News, Silicon Valley.

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