Apple today announced that it will start selling the iPad Mini, fourth-generation iPad and iPhone 5 in China over the next two weeks, putting those new products on shelves in time for the January 2013 kick-off of Chinese New Year sales.
Analysts expressed surprise that the new iPads -- particularly the diminutive 7.9-in. Mini -- were reaching the Chinese market, having previously predicted that the tablets wouldn't start shipping there until early 2013.
"We are very surprised by the accelerated launch of the iPad Mini and fourth-generation iPad in China that we did not expect to occur this year but rather sometime in 1Q13," said Brian White of Topeka Capital Markets in a note to clients today.
Apple will start taking reservation requests for the Wi-Fi models of the iPad Mini and new iPad on Dec. 6 for pickup the next day, Friday, Dec. 7, when the tablets hit Apple's own stores and some authorized resellers in the People's Republic of China.
The iPhone 5 will be available for pre-order Dec. 13, and for pickup and sale on Friday, Dec. 14.
White expected the iPad Mini to sell "like wildfire" in China.
"We have noticed the growing popularity of the Samsung Galaxy Note in China during our trips to the mainland this year, and we believe this trend will play into Apple's hands with the iPad Mini," White wrote. "[With its] smaller form factor and lower price point, we believe Apple will be able to sell the iPad mini in meaningful volumes."
The Galaxy Note, which boasts a 5.5-in. screen, has been dubbed a "phablet" by some to describe its dual phone and tablet traits. This week Samsung said it had sold 5 million units of the Galaxy Note II in the device's first two months of availability.
White said that the iPad Mini's entry-level price of $329 will be about half that of the Galaxy Note II now in Chinese stores.
Apple's China online store has not yet posted prices for the iPad Mini and fourth-generation iPad. The latter, however, will probably be priced the same as the third-generation iPad, which costs 3,338 yuan ($535) for the 16GB Wi-Fi configuration.
The December introduction of the iPhone 5 puts that model in front of Chinese consumers a month faster than its predecessor, the 2011 iPhone 4S, which reached the market in mid-January 2012.
China Unicom and China Telecom are the two Apple-sanctioned carriers on the mainland. The government-owned China Unicom is the world's third-largest mobile carrier, with an estimated 233 million wireless subscribers. China Telecom, once state-owned, is the country's third-largest mobile provider, with 222 million subscribers.
Together, China Telecom and China Unicom have a 3G mobile subscriber base of about 133 million.
Greater China, an Apple sales region composed of the People's Republic, Hong Kong and Taiwan, accounts for a large share of Apple's total revenue. In the company's 2012 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 29 2012, Greater China generated $23.8 billion, or 17% of all Apple sales for the year.
During the July-September quarter, China revenues were up 26% over the same period the year before.
But Apple sales in Greater China have stalled recently as economic growth there has slowed. Earlier this month, for example, research firm Canalys said that in the third quarter Apple fell off the Chinese smartphone market's top-five list after placing fifth and second in the two previous quarters.
Both White and Brian Marshall of the ISI Group believe the iPhone 5 will reverse that trend, with White arguing that the redesigned phone will be the new status symbol in China, prompting upgrades from owners of the iPhone 4 and 4S. Marshall noted that the iPhone 5 is the first Apple smartphone able to run on all three of China's biggest carriers.
Marshall also pointed out that the American company has still not tapped the most lucrative market on the mainland. "[A] big question remains however ... when will China Mobile, the world's largest carrier with 700 million wireless subscribers, start selling the iPhone?" he told his clients in a research note Friday. "Our best guess is 2H13 as two main negotiating points remain: 1) carrier subsidy levels, and 2) joint marketing costs."
Analysts, however, have been predicting an impending partnership between Apple and China Mobile for years, to no avail.
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is email@example.com.