A growing number of Chinese iPhone applications let users trawl through maps, look up English words and check stock quotes, even though the smartphone has not been approved for use in China by the country's telecommunications regulatory authority.
Both Chinese and foreign firms have released apps targeting China's iPhone users, who carry the phones back from trips abroad or buy smuggled versions.
Users have flocked to download apps like Chinese-English dictionaries and map services that give traffic updates and directions for Chinese cities. Programs that stream Chinese news or let users update their blogs are available in the iPhone App Store from Sina, a Chinese Web portal. And also on offer is the dominant Chinese messaging client QQ, which had 890 million registered users at the end of last year, according to owner Tencent.
There are already over 1 million iPhones in China, telecom consultancy Ovum estimates.
That number could rise if Apple completes talks with carrier China Unicom to launch an official iPhone 3G in China, where high-end users see the smartphone as fashionable. Apple hopes to start iPhone sales in China in the next year, it said last month.
Developers seem to be counting on the deal. One firm, Vuclip, has teamed up with state-run broadcaster CCTV on an iPhone video app it plans to launch this month, said a company spokeswoman in Beijing. The firm's parent company, California-based XinLab, already offers a Chinese app that lets users search streaming video Web sites for downloads and converts HD clips so they can play on a handset.
Hundreds of thousands of users have downloaded the Chinese video search app, Vuclip estimates. The firm is working on other mobile entertainment apps, the spokeswoman said.
An official iPhone launch in China could boost app downloads, said a spokesman for AutoNavi Information Technology, which offers a Chinese iPhone app called MiniMap. The app offers bus route planning and weather forecasts on top of map and address search services.
But a rise in iPhone users could also draw greater competition from other map program developers, the spokesman said.