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Katy Huberty: China Mobile will sell an extra 12 million iPhones

This week’s burning question among Apple (AAPL) analysts is this:

If and when China Mobile (CHL) begins selling iPhones to its 759 million subscribers, how many will it sell in the first year?

Everybody’s got numbers, but the two most persuasive estimates I’ve seen came from Bernstein’s Toni Sacconaghi and Morgan Stanley’s Katy Huberty, who each took the time to show his or her math. 

  • 15 million. Sacconaghi got his number by assuming (based largely on Verizon’s first year), that Apple picks up an extra 10 million postpaid customers and 5 million prepaid. His top down “reality check” suggests that Apple would have to capture 60% of China’s high-end smartphone market for that to work. Sixty percent seems high to me, but according to Sacconaghi, it’s “not incongruous with [Apple’s] share of the high-end in select other regions.”
  • 12 million. This is the middle number in Huberty’s three “cases” for China Mobile’s first year, all based on an AlphaWise survey of Chinese customers in large and medium-sized cities. The 12 million base case assumes an addressable market of 195 million and includes, she writes, “only those respondents who said they were willing to spend RMB 5,000+ [$825] on smartphones and who indicated they are ‘very likely’ to purchase a China Mobile iPhone, excluding ‘somewhat likely’ responses.” Huberty’s 23 million bull case assumes a larger addressable market (279 million) and includes respondents who were otherwise not planning to purchase a smartphone in the next year. The bear case of 5 million assumes a much smaller addressable market (121 million) and excludes customers considered likely to change their mind.

Apple and China Mobile have made no announcement of a distribution agreement, although one is expected soon.