iPhone gets slow start at China sales launch

China Unicom and Apple host a launch event in Beijing, but bad weather and higher prices keep crowds away

The iPhone appeared to get a slow start in China on Friday night as China Unicom and Apple held a launch event largely free of the buzz and long buyer lines that have accompanied launches of the handset elsewhere.

Smog hung in the Beijing air as buyers filled about two-thirds of an outdoor sales queue set up at a shopping mall. Beijing's first rain in weeks fell on an overhead canopy during the event.

"It's because of the rain, the temperature really is a little low today," said Li Yi, a 27-year-old man waiting in line to buy an iPhone 3GS, when asked about the low attendance.

High prices may also have kept away buyers. Chinese shoppers can find cracked gray-market iPhones for around 4,000 yuan (US$587) at many local electronics markets, while the cheapest iPhone being sold by China Unicom costs 4,999 yuan with no service contract.

China Unicom is selling the 32GB iPhone 3GS with no contract for the equivalent of $1,026, compared to about $800 in nearby Hong Kong.

Apple removed Wi-Fi from the iPhone for China to comply with the country's regulatory demands, another strike against the phone compared to gray-market versions.

"It's unfair that the phone has no Wi-Fi," said a 30-year-old male surnamed Fan as he looked at an iPhone in the Beijing Apple Store, where sales also launched Friday night.

China Unicom has said any handset that supports its 3G mobile standard will be able to use its network, so gray-market iPhone users will be able to buy service contracts just like users of the official handset.

A China Unicom representative declined to say how many buyers had reserved iPhones, which could be picked up at the launch event. The carrier was selling the 8GB iPhone 3G and the 16GB and 32GB versions of the iPhone 3GS.

The main appeal of an official handset is that it is uncracked and can download iPhone updates as they come out, said Liu Xinran, a 30-year-old female employee at a local movie studio, as she waited in line to buy a 32GB iPhone 3GS.

"I couldn't use my old iPhone 3G anymore because of a software upgrade," said Liu, adding that she had trouble accessing the App Store. "I have little choice but to buy an official one." Liu showed off a Nokia E71 she was using in the meantime as she spoke.

Apple's deal with China Unicom is non-exclusive and China Mobile, another local carrier, has said it is in ongoing talks with Apple about offering the iPhone.

"Ever since we first launched the iPhone, we greatly anticipated bringing it to China," said Greg Joswiak , Apple's vice president of iPod and iPhone marketing, in a speech at the launch. "We plan on actively marketing the iPhone here," he said before a large screen played an iPhone commercial that will air in China.

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