Apple sets China's iPhone 4S launch for Jan. 13

Siri won't understand Chinese until later this year

Apple today announced it would start selling the iPhone 4S in mainland China a week from this Friday -- Jan. 13.

The iPhone 4S was expected to eventually make it to the People's Republic of China (PRC) -- it debuted in Hong Kong on Nov. 11 -- but some analysts had forecast that Apple would move faster.

Two months ago, Brian White of Ticonderoga Securities said he expected the iPhone 4S to reach China before the end of the calendar year.

Today, White noted the Chinese iPhone 4S launch, but maintained that his projection of a faster iPhone 4S rollout had come true.

"As we expected, this represents the fastest iPhone launch in Apple's history with availability in over 90 countries," White told clients in a short research note today.

By comparison, Apple had placed the iPhone 4 in 105 countries by the end of September 2011, more than a year after its introduction.

Apple launched the iPhone 4S on Oct. 14.

Siri, the voice-activated assistant -- and the most-lauded feature of the iPhone 4S -- won't be able to understand Mandarin when the smartphone launches next week, White said. Apple today stuck to its previous commitment to bring Mandarin comprehension to Siri some time this year.

China Unicom, the only Apple-sanctioned carrier on the mainland, will start selling the iPhone 4S on Jan. 13 as well.

Talk of other Chinese mobile carriers, including the country's largest, China Mobile, remain just that for now. "We expect China Telecom to be added this year and we believe China Mobile will eventually become part of the Apple ecosystem," White said today.

Based on the quick sell-out of the iPhone 4S in Hong Kong -- supplies were exhausted within minutes at its one Apple store on launch day -- White also anticipates a run on the iPhone 4S in the PRC. "We believe the demand for the iPhone 4S in Mainland China to be unprecedented," White said.

China has increasingly been a major factor in Apple's massive revenues. In the quarter that ended Sept. 30, 2011, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong generated 16% of the company's total income.

And China, White reminded clients today, is the largest smartphone market in the world.

"The total mobile phone subscriber base in China was 963.7 million in November, and [the] high-end mobile phone market in China is estimated at 100-125 million subscribers or ~$70 billion," said White.

Apple has not revealed prices for the iPhone 4S in China, but most experts believe it will carry the same tag as the iPhone 4 did in 2010: 4,999 yuan ($793) for the 16GB model and 5,999 yuan ($952) for the 32GB model. Those prices are sans a long-term carrier contract.

The 8GB iPhone 4, which sells for $99 in the U.S. with a two-year contract, goes for 3,880 yuan ($633) in China without a contract.

More than 20 other countries -- including Bolivia, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Senegal -- will also see the iPhone 4S selling on Jan. 13.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more articles by Gregg Keizer.

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