Massive crowds greet iPhone 4 in China

September 25, 2010, 12:41 PM UTC

Over 200,000 pre-orders and a queue more than 1,000 customers long

The scene Saturday morning outside one of Apple's Beijing stores. Photo: AFP

What a difference a year makes.

Last November, when Apple (AAPL) first starting selling the iPhone in China — the world’s largest cell phone market with nearly 800 million subscribers — analysts termed the launch a “disappointment.” The queues of customers were underwhelming, and after four days of sales, China Unicom (CHU) had reportedly managed to sign up only 5,000 subscribers.

Contrast that with Saturday’s launch of the iPhone 4. More than 200,000 Chinese customers had pre-ordered this model, according to China Unicom, and by 8 a.m., when the doors opened at Apple’s new store in Beijing’s Joy City shopping mall, the queue was more than 1,000 customers long.

“It’s like waiting in line to see a movie star,” Sun Jian Kuan, 26, told a Computerworld reporter. “No phone can best the iPhone.”

It helps that this iPhone is not crippled like last year’s model, which at the request of the Chinese government was manufactured without a Wi-Fi receiver. The price is a little better too. A contract-free 32GB iPhone 3GS sold for $1,033 last year. This year’s 32GB iPhone 4 retails for 5,999 yuan ($905) without a contract. The 16GB model goes for 4,999 yuan ($754).

UPDATE: Demand outstripped supply, according to the
Wall Street Journal
. China Unicom reported Saturday that 60,000 of its customers had purchased iPhone 4s and a bundled mobile-service plan before the supply ran out. An Apple spokeswoman told the Journal more iPhones would be available soon and that customers should check online or with local stores regarding availability.

Below: IDG’s video report of the iPhone 4’s launch in China.

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[Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter @philiped]