John Paczkowski

Recent Posts by John Paczkowski

Was the iPhone’s Launch in China Really a Bust?

iphonchinaApple’s internationally coveted iPhone finally arrived at market in China last week and by most accounts, it’s debut was uncharacteristically muted.

There is “no sign of the sort of sellout reception that greeted the smart phone at its introduction in other countries,” The Wall Street Journal reported, adding that there were no lines for the iPhone at the Apple store in Beijing, the company’s only location in China.

Sounds like a lackluster launch, and with Apple (AAPL) and China Unicom, the only carrier authorized to sell the device in the country, declining to disclose sales figures, it’s difficult to argue that it was otherwise. It clearly wasn’t the rousing success to which we’ve become accustomed. That said, it probably wasn’t quite the bust it’s been made out to be, either.

Why? Well, consider this: There were launch ceremonies in 30 provinces. To date, we’ve heard anecdotal reports from–as best I can tell–one of them. And while it’s admittedly concerning to learn that a China Unicom store in Beijing sold just 10 iPhones last Saturday, that’s just one store. The device was on sale in many, many others (1000, according to Apple COO Tim Cook) across 30 provinces and 285 Chinese cities in a nation with 710 million mobile-phone subscribers.

Finally, while it’s true that the prices Apple and China Unicom are charging for the iPhone are heady, they’re not quite as bad as we’ve been led to believe. “I think the western media has misconstrued the iPhone pricing in China,” Dan Butterfield, editor of iPhonAsia told me.

“Nine out of 10 reports that I’ve seen have simply repeated the ‘too expensive’ mantra,” Butterfield explained. “They then quote the contract free price point–4,999 yuan ($730) to 6,999 yuan ($1,025) for the iPhone 3GS. They argue that you can buy a gray-market iPhone cheaper and it has WiFi….The truth…the gray-market price is marginally cheaper for those who want to go ‘prepaid.’ But when you examine the full matrix of China Unicom price/plans, you quickly realize that you can save big by going on contract vs. prepaid (pay as you go). There are even four price/plans where your iPhone if free. The iPhone subsidy increases for those who opt for more expensive monthly plans.”

Butterfield elaborates: “Moreover, if you want to access ‘3G,’ there is no good carrier option other than China Unicom. You can run at 2G speeds on China Mobile or China Telecom. But neither of these two networks support the chipset in iPhone. China Mobile runs TDSCDMA 3G and China Telecom runs CDMA2000 3G. So you are left with China Unicom’s WCDMA 3G–a world-standard 3G protocol fully supported by iPhone 3G/3GS. Why not go on contract and get a subsidized iPhone that is well below the ‘too expensive’ (contract free) prices that the media is shouting about?”

And in the end, does it even matter? As Butterfield noted, an iPhone sale is an iPhone sale–whether it’s made by a gray-market vendor or an authorized one. And either way, it’s good for Apple.

So was the iPhone’s launch in China really a bust? “Probably not,” said Butterfield. “Was it a rousing success? Probably not. The truth is somewhere in the middle.”

UPDATE: Well what do you know: China Unicom just coughed up some first weekend sales numbers for the iPhone and … well, they’re not much to look. The carrier sold just 5,000.

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik