China Unicom Sells Just Five iPhones Through Major Chinese Online Retailer

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It’s only been open for two weeks, but according to recently released sales figures from a store on a major digital retailer in China, the iPhone isn’t doing that great — at least, not through official channels. China Unicom has sold only five iPhones through large retail site Taobao.com so far, according to PC World.

China Unicom also sells the device through its own site, so the numbers are far from final, but they do probably at least hint at how the iPhone is faring in official outlets. Taobao.com’s iPhone sales also started later than the network operator’s, a couple of weeks after the iPhone’s official launch at the end of October.

The five iPhones sold include two 8GB models, and three 16GB devices. Taobao.com is the most frequented online retail site in China, and a go-to destination especially for electronics like cell phones and computers, so that’s a little like similar numbers being posted for iPhone sales at Amazon.com, were it offered there.

The problem is that China is already flooded with iPhones, despite how long it took Apple to come to an agreement with an official service provider for the device. Not only that, but unofficially unlocked devices brought in from other countries also boast Wi-Fi, something which Apple had to agree to remove from its production run for China at the behest of China Unicom in order to engineer a distribution deal.

There’s also the matter of price, which is no small concern. A 16GB iPhone 3GS costs around 5700 yuan (about $834) and the 32GB model will run you 6,999 yuan. It’s much cheaper in most cases to pick up an imported, unlocked international version. Pricing issues and the lack of Wi-Fi could account for why China Unicom itself reported only 5,000 sales in the first few days, a dismal number when compared with international launch figures.

It may seem like a loss for both China Unicom and Apple, but really, it sends a clear message to Apple’s other business partners going forward: If you let us do things our way, and don’t make any extraordinary demands that drag out the negotiation process and impede our ability to offer consumers exactly what we already know they want, everyone wins. If not, customers will seek other solutions.

As Apple looks to expand the availability of the iPhone, opening up the device to more and more carriers worldwide, it’s an important message to send, and best of all, the consumer wins thanks to reduced control residing in the hands of telcos, and more with hardware and software makers that actually care about user experience quality control.

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