Foxconn, the China-based firm that assembles the Apple iPhone, has shipped approximately 1.4 million devices to China Mobile, according to a source cited by The Wall Street Journal. China Mobile will begin selling the iPhone for the first time on January 17. The number of iPhones stocked by China Mobile doesn't necessarily offer a preview of initial sales, but it does speak a bit about demand for the phone. China Mobile has been taking pre-orders since December 25.
While the iPhone 5s will be new to China Mobile, it's not new to China. China Telecom and China Unicom have both been selling the iPhone 5s since the fall and recently stepped up discounts aggressively ahead of the device's China Mobile debut. With 760 million customers, however, China Mobile is much bigger than the other two companies.
"Shipping one million or more iPhones to a single carrier per month is substantial," said The Journal's source. "But we have limited visibility beyond this month as Apple hasn't informed Foxconn of the volume for the next shipment to China Mobile." Gartner estimates that Apple sold about 18.5 million iPhones in China between January and September 2013 (fourth-quarter numbers aren't available yet).
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Analysts initially expected Apple's deal with China Mobile to boost iPhone sales by 10 to 30 million units. Those forecasts are being called into question, though, after the pre-orders failed to scare up big numbers. When the iPhone 5s and 5c launched in September, initial sales for the smartphone surpassed 9 million over a three-day weekend. It appears that China Mobile is not expected to trigger a repeat of that performance.
The China Mobile variant of the iPhone 5s is different from the one being sold by China Telecom, China Unicom, and elsewhere. It is being made to support the TD-SCDMA network operated by China Mobile rather than the more common LTE/HSPA networks run by other operators around the world. China Mobile does not plan to sell the iPhone 5c.
In the US, consumers clearly prefer the 5s to the 5c. A new study from Consumer Intelligence Research Partners (CIRP) indicates that the 5s accounted for 59% of the fourth-quarter iPhone sales, while the 5c accounted for 27% during the same period. In comparison, in 2012 the iPhone 5 accounted for 50% of sales during the fourth quarter, while the iPhone 4 enjoyed 32%. This suggests that the 5c isn't well-received as a strong lower-cost option among iPhone buyers -- in fact, it appears to be driving customers to the 5s.
"The design update worked for Apple, since the would-be mid-priced (iPhone) 5 customers seem to have migrated to the higher-priced flagship 5s," said CIRP analyst Josh Lowitz to Re/Code. "The jury is out on how successful the 5c was in attracting new customers, but we do know that Apple increased the average selling price of iPhones overall. If the old iPhone 5 had been the mid-priced phone, we expect that it would have sold a higher percentage of iPhones than the 5c did, as previous mid-priced legacy iPhones have. The 5c seems to have been designed to force certain buyers to the 5s."
Without the 5c, China Mobile iPhone customers have only the 5s available. It's not a bad choice at all, but the competition from low-cost Android devices is fierce. Whether or not the iPhone 5s can maintain some visibility amidst the din in China Mobile retail stores remains to be seen.
Eric is a freelance writer for InformationWeek specializing in mobile technologies.
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