Just as our sister site MobileCrunch wrote about yesterday, Chinese telecom giant China Unicom has just officially announced that it has reached a deal with Apple to sell the iPhone in China. They did so as an aside in their earnings announcement, which you can find here.
Some details not revealed yesterday include that this is a 3-year deal between China Unicom and Apple, and that the first iPhones will ship sometime in Q4 of this year (the report yesterday had said October, which is certainly a possibility). Not stated is whether this will be the iPhone 3GS or the older iPhone 3G [Update below]. Recent reports had indicated that either way, the device would not come with WiFi functionality (which had supposedly long been one sticking point between Apple and the Chinese carriers).
China Unicom is the second largest mobile provider in China, behind China Mobile. But even as the number two in China, that still makes it the third largest mobile provider in the world. Or think about it this way: While the U.S. has something like 270 million cellular subscribers total across all the carriers, China Unicom has over 140 million alone. For comparison’s sake, AT&T has just about half of that, around 78 million.
If Apple can capture a significant percentage of the China Unicom subscribers, and possibly pull in some from other carriers (China has around 700 million total cellular subscribers), that will be huge. While the iPhone is now in over 80 countries, sales are still dominated by the U.S. which accounts for just about half of the units. Success in China could obviously change that, big time.
Update: One of our commenters, Snake Chen, appears to be reporting live from the press conference in China. According to him, China Unicom will get both the iPhone 3GS and the iPhone 3G, just like we have in the U.S. Here’s his coverage in Chinese, and some pictures.