China Mobile (中國移動), the country’s biggest wireless provider, yesterday started selling Apple’s iPhone to millions of customers nationwide, ending a six-year wait in a crucial market for the US technology giant.
Apple is fighting for share in China’s competitive smartphone market, so China Mobile’s 760 million-strong customer base and its plans to roll out the world’s largest 4G (fourth-generation) network have both companies forecasting a fruitful union after a long engagement.
China Mobile has priced the iPhone 5S roughly in line with competitor China Unicom (中國聯通). At official Apple stores prices for iPhones compatible with each of the country’s operators are identical — an iPhone 5S with 16GB of memory costs 5,288 yuan (US$867), while a similar-capacity 5C sells for 4,488 yuan.
At a China Mobile branch in downtown Shanghai, university student Jiang Yong picked up a silver iPhone 5S he had pre-ordered.
“The price does feel a bit high at first sight, but it is the most advanced iPhone so far, equipped with the most up-to-date network, which is exciting and irresistible,” he said.
Although analysts see China Mobile gaining new customers and Apple adding market share in China, they caution that the US company trails South Korea’s Samsung, as well as Chinese competitors offering cheaper phones.
Samsung commanded more than an 18 percent share of China’s smartphone market as of the third quarter last year, according to Chinese consultancy Analysys International, while Apple sat in eighth place with just 3.5 percent.
Apple cannot afford to ignore the world’s most populous country, which Apple chief executive officer Tim Cook has forecast will overtake the US to be the firm’s biggest market in future.
The iPhone is already sold through China’s two other major telecom firms, 10 Apple stores in mainland China and an online store on Taobao Mall (淘寶) — the leading business-to-consumer marketplace operated by Alibaba Group (阿里巴巴). Smuggled iPhones are also widely available in China, carried back from overseas where they are cheaper, sold openly online and through small electronics shops.
“What this partnership does is, it allows us to take the iPhone to a different level in China, to marry it with the fastest network,” Cook told a media briefing in Beijing on Wednesday, according to Dow Jones Newswires.
“I see a huge barrier being removed, because there are lots of people that love China Mobile’s network and love iPhones and those two spheres are finally coming together,” Cook said.
The launch of the high-end iPhone 5S and less expensive 5C in September last year helped propel Apple sales in Greater China — which includes Hong Kong and Taiwan — to a “record” last quarter, Cook said, though he gave no figures.
Speaking this week, China Mobile Chairman Xi Guohua (奚國華) said: “China Mobile and Apple are newly wedded after six years of courtship.”
Analysts said China Mobile will need to persuade its existing customers to pay for faster and better quality 4G services if its iPhone sales are to succeed, but the expensive prices make the contracts more suitable for business consumers.
“China Mobile wants to have a head start in the 4G market with the advantages of Apple, but judging from its current pricing packages, I don’t think ordinary users can afford such high costs,” said Wang Ying, a Beijing-based analyst for consultancy iResearch.