By Catherine Shu
Tim Cook would like to get Apple (AAPL) on a faster boat to China. On his current visit to the country, it looks like the Apple CEO has focused on smoothing the rollout and distribution of Apple products there. In an interview with Chinese news site Sina (link via Google Translate), Cook said that he believes China will become Apple’s most important market in the “not too distant future.” He also sounded an optimistic note over his latest talk with China Mobile, but would not divulge further details about whether or not he has managed to ink a deal with the world’s largest carrier, which the Cupertino company has been stuck in negotiations with for years. Earlier this week, Cook also met with Miao Wei, minister of China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, the agency responsible for approving Apple products before their launch in that country.
The China launch of Apple products lags significantly behind their U.S. debut, which is due in large part to the wait for approval from government authorities. For example, the iPhone 5 was not available in China until nearly three months after its U.S. debut. Not only that, but Apple has been stuck in talks with China Mobile (CHL) for years, wrestling over network and revenue sharing issues. Apple’s lack of a distribution deal with the world’s largest carrier by subscriber means that its market share in China has been chipped away by less expensive, more easily attainable devices by competitors like Samsung (OTC:SSNLF) and Lenovo (OTCPK:LNVGF).
It is crucial for Apple to cement a deal with China Mobile if it wants to increase its market penetration. Cook met with China Mobile Chairman Xi Guohua on Thursday, as confirmed by the carrier to QQ TEch (link via Google Translate) and reported by Reuters. Though both Apple and China Mobile have refused to disclose what issues were on the table, it’s almost certain that Cook’s aim was to finally gain access to the carrier’s 700 million subscribers. Discussions between the two companies have dragged on for about four years, weighed down by both network issues and disagreement over revenue sharing models.
While China has constantly been one of the latter countries to receive new Apple products, Cook told Sina that it is a “top priority” of his for China to become one of the first regions in each rollout, and that he has been working diligently to cooperate with the government approval process for each new device in order to shrink the time between its U.S. and China debuts.
At present, Apple has 11 stores in China and Hong Kong, as well as a wide network of Apple resellers. Cook hopes to increase the number of official Apple stores in the region to 25.
Cook, who said in the interview that he has visited China at least 20 times since 1996 and has a Chinese sister-in-law, also emphasized that Apple focuses on the needs of Chinese consumers when developing new products. For example, Apple made sure that both OSX and iOS had capabilities and functions tailored for the Chinese market. (The cheaper iPhone that is reportedly in the works would also help rope in new consumers in China).