When Apple began taking pre-orders from China Mobile customers on Christmas Day, it marked the successful end of a lengthy effort by CEO Tim Cook to get the company’s newest smartphones onto the world’s largest mobile network.
The marketing coup could boost global iPhone sales by more than 20 million units next year, according to some Apple stock analysts.
Yet while the deal makes the iPhone 5s and 5c models available to China Mobile’s 760 million subscribers beginning Jan. 17, a new report warns it may have come just as that country’s smartphone market growth has begun to slow.
It’s too soon to know if the fourth-quarter slowdown in smartphone growth there is the sign of a maturing market or merely a hiccup, as China’s mobile consumers wait for snazzier phones that run on newer, faster 4G networks that will soon debut.
But the report does reveal how hard Apple and Samsung Electronics will have to fight for China’s 1.2 billion mobile subscribers against each other and against a group of scrappy, home-grown rivals there.
The number of new activations on all of China’s fastest wireless networks, among so-called 3G subscribers, was a combined 11 million in November, according to Wedge Partners, an equity analyst firm that sells research to institutional investors.
Last month’s total was the lowest of the year and fell from 13.4 million in October and more than 17 million in September, according to Wedge analyst Jun Zhang.
The Dec. 23 report estimates monthly smartphone user growth will decelerate by about 27%, to a range of 12.5 million to 13 million new 3G subscribers in the fourth quarter, from a monthly range of 17 million to 18 million in the third quarter.
Apple, which in September began selling its latest iPhones on the networks of China Unicom and China Telecom — both smaller rivals to China Mobile — has been gaining market share, the report said, without adding details.
A phone call to the analyst wasn’t returned.
The Chinese government earlier this month approved new 4G operating licenses for its largest mobile carriers, including China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom.
That may have smartphone consumers there waiting for less-expensive 4G phones, which are expected by next summer from China-based handset makers such as Xiaomi, Huawei and Lenovo.
“We expect China smartphone sell-through will continue to be weak until low- to middle-range 4G smartphones come out in the middle of 2014,” the report said.
Meanwhile, Samsung and Apple are seen slugging it out for the high-end of the market there.
“We think the competition between Apple and Samsung will (still) be intensive for the high-end segment,” the report said.
If that comes to pass, Samsung may find its No. 1 market share being attacked at both the high end, thanks to Apple’s China Mobile deal, and at the low end, from Chinese rivals.
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