Apple Inc. CEO Tim Cook (R) and China Mobile's Chairman Xi Guohua clap their hands at an event celebrating the launch of Apple's iPhone on China Mobile's network at a China Mobile shop in Beijing January 17, 2014. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
SHANGHAI: China Mobile, the country's biggest services provider, on Friday started selling Apple's iPhone to its millions of customers nationwide, ending a six-year wait in a key market for the US technology giant.
The combination of China Mobile's existing base of 760 million customers and its plans to roll out the world's largest 4G (fourth generation) network have the firm and Apple forecasting a fruitful union after a long engagement.
China Mobile has priced the iPhone 5s roughly the same as competitor China Unicom, while at official Apple stores prices for iPhones compatible with each of the country's networks are identical.
At a China Mobile branch in downtown Shanghai, university student Jiang Yong picked up a silver iPhone 5s he had pre-ordered.
"The price does feel a bit high at first sight but it is the most advanced iPhone so far, equipped with the most up to date network, which is exciting and irresistible," he told AFP.
In the eastern city of Nanjing, more than 200 people lined up at a China Mobile office from early morning to buy iPhones with the queue stretching 40 metres or 44 yards, according to a microblog posting.
Although analysts see China Mobile gaining new customers and Apple adding market share in China's highly competitive smartphone market, they caution that the US company trails South Korea's Samsung as well as Chinese competitors offering cheaper phones.
Samsung commanded more than an 18 percent share of China's smartphone market as of the third quarter last year, according to Chinese consultancy Analysys International, while Apple sat in eighth place with a 3.5 percent share.
But Apple cannot afford to ignore the world's most populous country, which Apple chief executive officer Tim Cook has forecast will overtake the United States to be the firm's biggest market in future.
The iPhone is already sold through China's two other major telecom firms, 10 Apple stores in mainland China and a new online store on Taobao Mall the leading business-to-consumer marketplace operated by Alibaba Group.
Smuggled iPhones are also widely available in China, carried back from overseas where they are cheaper, sold openly online and through small electronics shops.
"China Mobile and Apple are newly wedded after six years of courtship," the Chinese firm's chairman Xi Guohua told a media briefing in Beijing on Wednesday, according to a statement.
"What this partnership does is, it allows us to take the iPhone to a different level in China, to marry it with the fastest network," Cook told the briefing, according to Dow Jones Newswires.
"I see a huge barrier being removed, because there are lots of people that love China Mobile's network and love iPhones and those two spheres are finally coming together."
The launch of the high-end iPhone 5s and slightly less expensive 5c in September helped propel Apple sales in Greater China, which includes Hong Kong and Taiwan to a "record" last quarter, Cook said, though he gave no figures.
Apple's iPhones and iPads are popular in China but recent product launches have been calmer than one in early 2012, when customers desperate to get their hands on the iPhone 4s fought with security guards and threw eggs at a Beijing store. (AFP)