Apple's mobile partner in China launches own iPhone rival

China Unicom announced a new smartphone and software platform Monday, Wophone, that will rival Apple's iPhone, Google's Android and China Mobile's Ophone offerings.

China's second largest mobile operator, with 170 million subscribers, created the Wophone as a way to avoid being marginalized by other mobile industry players that have opened their own app stores, executives from the company have said.

The new handset platform will immediately become a rival to the maker of one of China Unicom's hottest selling smartphones, Apple. The iPhone 4 debuted in China last year to huge crowds and remained sold out for months. Analysts say the popular smartphone is one reason China Unicom has been able to compete against larger rival China Mobile for 3G (third generation) mobile network users.

China Unicom said 15.5 million of its subscribers were on 3G as of the end of January, compared to 22.6 million for China Mobile.

China Mobile, with nearly 590 million subscribers in all, launched the Ophone two years ago in a similar bid to sell apps, music and more. Ophone devices come with software from Chinese maker Borqs, which is largely based on Google's Android software.

China Unicom said its Wophone software is Linux-based and entirely developed by itself and partners, including some Chinese government offices, but does not rely on Android.

Local development of the Wophone not only benefits China's technology development, China Unicom said in the statement, it will also help mobile phone makers put out devices quickly and more inexpensively than otherwise, enabling lower costs for 3G handset buyers.

A number of companies have agreed to develop Wophone handsets, including China's ZTE, Huawei, TCL and Beijing Tianyu Communication Equipment, Taiwan's Inventec Appliances and HTC, South Korea's Samsung Electronics and Motorola of the U.S.

China Unicom said it expects the first Wophone out shortly but did not give a specific time.

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