updated 12:43 am EST, Thu December 12, 2013
Chance to pre-order new iPhones on China Mobile may be just hours away
An official China Mobile page which lets Beijing-based users make reservations for its new "4G" LTE service features a graphic of the iPhone 5s and (on a different page) a jewel-encrusted golden apple -- which both confirms that the world's largest cellular carrier will be including the iPhone at long last, and hints that pre-orders for it could begin as early as late Thursday. China Mobile is the last of China's major cellular providers to carry the iPhone, the result of nearly six years of negotiations.
The time at which pre-orders for the iPhone will begin isn't clear, but an earlier Wall Street Journal report suggested that reservations could open sometime Thursday. As it is already mid-day Thursday at this writing, it would seem the report could have been premature. The Journal had also said that the iPhone would formally be introduced along with the debut of the LTE network, which is said to happen on December 18.
Whenever formal pre-orders for the iPhone begin, the event will mark the first time an iPhone model has been compatible with China's proprietary TD-LTE network (the rest of the world uses a system called FD-LTE), which the country has been building out over the past two years. Not only the are the iPhone 5s and 5c the first iPhone models to be compatible with the frequencies used on TD-LTE, they are among only a handful of devices that have already received certification for the network.
Because the latest iPhone models have been available in China on rival carriers since their debut, Apple's share of the smartphone market has spiked over the past month, rising from around four percent to 12 percent share. There are already over 15 million iPhone users on China Mobile's network, the carrier admitted, even though data for iPhones is currently limited to EDGE-like 2G speeds until the LTE network becomes fully active.
In addition to the unknown number of iPhone users on China Telecom and China Unicom, there are some 176 million existing 3G China Mobile customers, many of whom will be interested in upgrading to a LTE-capable iPhone. China Mobile has a total current subscriber base of over 759 million (as of October), and while most are on feature phones at present, China's expanding middle class is creating an ever-growing pool of first-time smartphone buyers Apple will compete for.