Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) is taking the iPhone phenomenon into the world's biggest mobile phone market. In the process, I see hints of a new direction in the American market as well. Bye-bye, AT&T (NYSE:T) -- hello, Verizon (NYSE:VZ).
When Apple announced an iPhone distribution deal with China Unicom (NYSE:CHU), it opened a can of worms back home.
For one, Unicom is a low-end carrier in China, which doesn't rhyme with Apple's high-end image elsewhere. If China Unicom can beat out China Mobile (NYSE:CHL), whose subscribers are both more affluent and more numerous, then what's stopping lesser lights from selling the iPhone in other markets? Verizon wouldn't care about this point -- but Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) and T-Mobile might.
But Apple is still talking to China Mobile, too. While AT&T has an exclusive iPhone contract in the U.S., Apple has multiple carriers in markets like France and India, and the Unicom contract isn't exclusive. Apple may have slowly eased into the multi-carrier game, but there's no going back now. And don't forget that Vodafone (NYSE:VOD), which sells iPhones in almost a dozen countries today, is a major ingredient in the Verizon Wireless joint operation.
Finally, the mere fact that Apple still wants to talk to China Mobile is very significant. The iPhone isn't technically compatible with that company's high-speed 3G network, in the same way that Verizon and Sprint have technical issues with the current iPhone models. Perhaps Apple is planning to introduce multiple models for different network technologies. Maybe there's even a multitalented iPhone in the works that could connect to several high-speed network standards. Or, the next-generation wave of 4G networks could pave the way for a global standard across borders and networks.
So Apple is showing signs of an increasingly open attitude to both technical standards and mobile carrier politics. Add in Apple's preference for top-of-the-line markets, Verizon's massive footprint with 87 million subscribers, and Apple's existing relationships with Vodafone, and Verizon Wireless starts to look like the logical next partner.
AT&T needn't panic, of course, but that's a different story. The iPhone has been a success -- but the next chapter in this story will cover a much larger market both at home and abroad. Maybe we ain't seen nothing yet.
Would Chinese success plus Verizon Wireless equal an Apple that's worth every penny of today's seemingly inflated share price? Discuss in the comments below.
Fool contributor Anders Bylund holds no position in any of the companies discussed here. You can check out Anders' holdings or a concise bio if you like, and The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.