Shanghai (AFP) - China Mobile, the country's biggest wireless provider, on Friday started selling Apple's iPhone to millions of customers nationwide, ending a six-year wait in a crucial market for the US technology giant.
Apple is fighting for share in China's competitive smartphone market, and China Mobile's 760 million-strong customer base and its plans to roll out the world's largest 4G (fourth generation) network have both companies forecasting a fruitful union after a long engagement.
China Mobile has priced the iPhone 5s roughly around the same levels as competitor China Unicom.
At official Apple stores prices for iPhones compatible with each of the country's operators are identical -- an iPhone 5s with 16 GB of memory costs 5,288 yuan ($867), while a similar-capacity 5c sells for 4,488 yuan.
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.
Christina Zhang, already a China Mobile customer, bought a gold iPhone 5s, while keeping her existing number.
"I like the gold colour, it's really fashionable," she said.
Although analysts see China Mobile gaining new customers and Apple adding market share in China, 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 just 3.5 percent.
Apple cannot afford to ignore the world's most populous country, which 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 an 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.
"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 a media briefing in Beijing on Wednesday, 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 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.
Earlier this week, China Mobile chairman Xi Guohua said: "China Mobile and Apple are newly wedded after six years of courtship."
China Mobile received one million pre-orders for iPhones, the company said in a statement on Friday.
But analysts said it will need to persuade its existing customers to pay for faster and better quality 4G services if its iPhone sales are to be successful, while the expensive prices make the contracts more suitable for business consumers.
"China Mobile wants to have a head start in the 4G market with the advantages of Apple, but judging from its current pricing packages, I don't think ordinary users can afford such high costs," said Wang Ying, a Beijing-based analyst for consultancy iResearch.
China Mobile's Hong Kong-traded stock closed up 0.32 percent Friday.
Apple's iPhones and iPads are popular with their Chinese fans 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.