Apple Takes the Long Road to China

Is Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) CEO Steve Jobs being too stubborn? A dangerous question, I know. Jobs has a history of winning big by refusing to bend to conventional thinking.

Still, I can't help wondering. China Mobile (NYSE: CHL  ) Chairman Wang Jianzhou this week told reporters that Apple's business model was at least partially responsible for getting in the way of a deal that would have let China Mobile carry and resell the iPhone in the Sino-superpower.

That's no small problem. Apple's hugely successful retail concept has been exported to just four countries: Canada, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom.

Even so, talk of a "ChiPhone" goes back to late last year, when the two companies spent weeks negotiating. China Mobile ultimately refused to accept the sort of revenue-sharing terms that AT&T (NYSE: T  ) agreed to. Apparently, that's still the case.

Not to worry, though -- the news isn't all bad. Wang also said the carrier's door will "remain open as long as there is customer demand."

Well, that's something.

Customer demand is, indeed, soaring. Some 400,000 "gray market" handsets -- bought here and then resold overseas -- are in use on China Mobile's network, according to researcher In-Stat.

How incredibly frustrating. If China Mobile already operates as an unofficial carrier for 10% of the 4 million or so iPhones, then Apple is probably losing out on millions in additional revenue. And it'll continue to, until either:

  • China Mobile cracks down on its rebellious subscribers. (Not so likely, given China's history with piracy.)
  • A deal is made. (Much more likely.)

So should Jobs cave in? China is such a massive market that it's tempting to say yes. And with China Mobile beginning tests of a 3G network, it's certainly a good time to complete a deal.

If, that is, Jobs gets the terms he wants. History says he will. And if he doesn't? At least second-tier carrier China Unicom (NYSE: CHU  ) is still available. (Sigh.)

China is calling, Steve. Will you please pick up?

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