China Mobile has 7.44 million iPhones on its network, despite not selling them or even offering a 3G network, so there's huge potential if it can get the iPhone 4 speaking Chinese.
And that is the plan, according to China Mobile's chairman, who told investors that he had met with Steve Jobs to talk about an iPhone 4 model supporting the TD-LTE standard that China Mobile is obliged to deploy, as translated for us by Penn Olson.
That would enable China Mobile to sell the handsets to its subscribers, rather than relying on the grey imports which have already supplied 7.44 million of them with iPhones.
Those iPhones can only use 2G connectivity, as China Mobile's 3G network uses the locally-designed TD-SCDMA standard which is incompatible with everything else. The iPhone's official distributer in China is Chain Unicom, which runs a more-familiar 3G technology (UMTS) in internationally recognised frequency bands.
Similar problems apply to 4G (LTE) networks, though the TD variant being deployed by China Mobile isn't as unique to China as TD-SCDMA. It looks like TD-LTE is going to be deployed in quite a few places around the word, so a TD-supporting iPhone variant isn't very unlikely.
China Mobile is now up to 616 million subscribers, with revenue and profit on the rise. Chinese operators are still growing quickly, though saturation point isn't far off and once the only way to compete is by stealing customers off each other, the business will change.
It's that predatory business-style, already prevalent in the west, that Apple was able to exploit so effectively with the original iPhone. Operator exclusives were offered in return for big subsidies and advertising budgets, to the benefit of both parties (though, arguably, more to Apple's).
Exclusives aren't so important these days, so it is probable that China Mobile will get to see the next generation of iPhone, and it will be interesting to see how Apple adapts when the majority of iOS users are speaking Mandarin. ®