The iPhone, Tim Cook and 900 million Chinese wireless users

June 24, 2011, 11:29 AM UTC

What do the reports of a pending deal with the world’s largest carrier really mean?

Cook (in blue blazer) at China Mobile HQ. Source: M.I.C. Gadget

Brian White, Ticonderoga Securities’ chief Apple (AAPL) analyst, has a boilerplate sentence stored on his computer that goes like this:

“We believe the ramp of the mobile Internet in China will be one of the great wonders of the tech world over the next decade and the country has clearly caught “Apple fever” that we believe will only accelerate as the company expands it carrier base to include both China Mobile and China Telecom.”

White used his “great wonder of the tech world” sentence twice on Thursday.

Once when he commented on COO Tim Cook’s appearance (and a blurry photograph of his back) in the headquarters of China Mobile (CHL), the world’s largest mobile phone company with 611 million wireless subscribers. (See here.)

And again, four hours later, when he passed along a report that one of China Mobile’s employees had posted a weibo message (a Chinese tweet) indicating that China Mobile will begin selling the iPhone 5 in September — a report that by Friday had made its way to the Shanghai Daily and the Reuters wire.

White may be right about the significance of these reports over the next decade, but it’s too soon for Apple investors to start counting those hundreds of million subscribers.

It’s a question of protocols.

Although business in greater China has been booming for Apple — $5 billion in sales in the first six months of fiscal 2011 versus $3 billion in all of 2010 — the company has access to only a small fraction of China’s 896 million mobile wireless subscribers.

Of China’s three largest carriers, Apple has a deal with only one — China Unicom (CHU), the country’s second largest. And of China’s nearly 900 million subscribers, only 74 million have access to 3G networks. Finally, China Mobile’s 3G network uses a home-grown protocol — TD-SCDMA — that is incompatible with Apple’s current generation of iPhones. On Thursday, White suggested that Apple would have to build a special version of the iPhone 5 to work on China Mobile’s network, something it has so far been reluctant to do.

China Mobile has already announced that it will carry Apple’s 4G iPhones when a LTE (long-term evolution) version is ready. When that happens is anybody’s guess.

So the deals Tim Cook was making in China this week may someday take their place among the great wonders of the tech world. But probably not by September.