China Mobile speaks: Tells WSJ iPhone pre-orders start Thursday

December 9, 2013, 12:52 PM UTC

Groundhog Day

FORTUNE — Remember Groundhog Day, the 1993 comedy starring Bill Murray as a self-centered TV weatherman who gets stuck in a time loop and must repeat the same hated assignment again and again until he finally gets it right — and wins Andie MacDowell’s heart?

Investors who have been watching Apple’s (AAPL) courtship of the world’s largest mobile phone carrier for more than six years — I posted my first Apple-China Mobile (CHL) story in November 2007 — must feel a little like Bill without his Andie or his Punxsutawney Phil.

The latest twist comes via Lorraine Luk in Monday’s Wall Street Journal. Having denied reports last week in both the
and that the two companies had finally signed a distribution deal, the carrier changed its tune.

“A phone call to a China Mobile customer representative,” the Journal reported Monday, “confirmed that customers can preorder iPhones from the site starting Thursday.”

Here’s the Punxsutawney twist: According to Monday’s Journal, a China Mobile’s pre-order website was advertising Apple’s smartphones alongside devices made by Samsung, Lenovo and HTC. The website is still promoting Samsung and the rest, but has since dropped any mention of Apple or its iPhones.

At this point, I suspect the deal won’t be real until Apple says it’s so.