Has China Mobile quietly begun taking pre-orders for Apple iPhones?

December 3, 2013, 4:26 AM UTC

FORTUNE — The attached screen grab comes from a website registered by a subsidiary of China Mobile Limited (CHL) in Suzhou, a city of 5 million just west of Shanghai.

The site went live late Monday local time, and began reserving appointments for customers interested in buying the iPhone 5S or iPhone 5C.

UPDATE: A China Mobile spokesman told CNN’s Beijing bureau Tuesday that there was no deal yet with Apple (AAPL) and that the Suzhou site was not “official.” He left open the possibility that it was some kind of test or experiment.

Wall Street Journal
reported the next day that an iPhone distribution agreement had, in fact, been signed. Apple had no comment. China Mobile spokeswoman told Reuters the two companies were still negotiating.

Apple and China Mobile — the world’s largest mobile carrier — have been working on an iPhone distribution agreement for more than six years.

With its 740 million subscribers, China Mobile is both Apple’s biggest holdout and its biggest prize.

If the carrier is orchestrating a soft launch to work out the kinks, Suzhou is not a bad place to stage it. It’s one of the richest cities in China, with a sizable population of smartphone users who would not only know about the iPhone, but could probably afford it.

NOTE: An earlier version of this story took the website, its iPhone ordering system and its provenance at face value. China Mobile’s denial that a deal has been struck suggested that the site might have been less than it seemed. The site was taken off line overnight Tuesday, but by Wednesday morning it had reopened (in a different format) “In order to meet the public demand.”

In a note to clients Tuesday, RBC Capital’s Amit Daryanani added his view:

“Recent advertisements from China Mobile’s Suzhou Life Network Web portal suggest that a reservation system for Apple’s iPhone 5s/5c line-up has appeared. Notably, the pre-order system is not direct but instead allows customers to reserve an appointment. This adds further credence to recent China news sources (Xinhua News) suggesting a Dec-18 launch, in line with China Mobile’s 4G network launch.”