China Mobile Boasts of 15 Million iPhone Users

China Mobile's iPhone user base is now 15 million strong, even though it's not selling the device. However, the telecom is in talks with Apple, and a 4G-compatible iPhone could be legit.

China continues to keep Apple on its toes. Most recently, China Mobile announced that it supports more than 15 million iPhone users. It's not a stupendous number, given that the state-owned operator, the largest in the world, has 655 million subscribers. But neither is it too shabby, considering China Mobile doesn't sell the iPhone or have an official relationship with Apple.

The news comes from Penn Olson, helpfully translating from Sina Tech. The site notes that the trick is "especially impressive given that China Mobile's 3G network doesn't support the iPhone so China Mobile iPhone users can't get any 3G service."

The Next Web adds that 15 million phones means China Mobile's iPhone users have grown by 5 million since October 2011. In August 2011 alone, China Mobile gained more than 600,000, the site reported.

So, while U.S. carriers face the high costs of supporting the iPhone, both in subsidies paid for the pricey devices€”which are more costly to carriers than any other smartphones€”and in building out high-speed networks to support data-gobbling users, China Mobile has 15 million iPhone users paying it to make phone calls and send text messages over 2G, while it pays zero subsidies.

Sprint CEO Dan Hesse must have dreams of meeting China Mobile Chairman Wang Jianzhou in a dark alley.

Nevertheless, Wang is said to be continuously knocking on Apple's door, trying to work out an arrangement, and says that China Mobile's growing 4G (Long-Term Evolution) LTE network will be compatible with future iPhones.

In an October interview with Reuters, Wang said, €œApple promised to provide, when they develop the iPhone for LTE, that it will include TD-LTE. We are discussing the details.€

Apparently, no deal has yet been reached, though Morgan Stanley analysts predict that a formal deal between China Mobile and Apple could bring on board an additional 60 million iPhones by the end of 2013.

On Jan. 4, Apple announced that the iPhone 4S would be available in China Jan. 13.

€œCustomer response to our products in China has been off the charts,€ Apple CEO Tim Cook said in the Jan. 4 statement. €œWith the launch in China next week, iPhone 4S will be available in over 90 countries making this our fastest iPhone rollout ever.€

Apple currently has a deal with China Unicom, and on March 9 will begin selling 16, 32 and 64GB models of the iPhone 4S on China Telecom; it began taking online reservations for the devices March 2.

€œiPhone 4S has been an incredible hit with customers around the world. We€™re thrilled to be launching iPhone 4S with China Telecom and can€™t wait to get it into the hands of even more customers in China,€ Apple spokesperson Natalie Harrison told The Loop in February.

Getting iPhones into customers€™ hands in China hasn't proved the simplest agenda for Apple.

The intense demand for iPhone in China has created a rich market for scalpers, whose tactics worked to derail the release of the iPhone 4S at a Beijing store Jan. 13. After a mixed crowd of iPhone fans and line place holders paid by scalpers, who had waited overnight in 20-degree temperatures, grew rowdy, they were told the Apple store would not be opening€”which caused things to get rowdier still, according to reports.

While China is Apple's second-highest revenue country after the United States, Apple decided at the time to stop selling the iPhone 4S in all five of its China stores, according to Bloomberg. The move led it to miss out on sales related to the lunar new year€”a holiday that in 2011 generated $64 billion in retail sales, according to the Chinese government.

Penn Olson writer C. Custer, describing China Mobile's unofficial iPhone success as "unflattering," adds, "Yes, China Mobile, corruption at the executive level does make you look fat."