Updated. Apple(s AAPL) CEO Tim Cook has reportedly been spotted in China this week, at a Beijing Apple Store. What’s he really in town for? On Monday he met with government officials to talk further “investment” in the country, but there are whispers he’s also there to meet with China’s top three mobile operators. As has been noted, this kind of trip to the country is something Steve Jobs didn’t do.
But for Cook, this kind of mission isn’t new — when he was COO, he had been spotted in the country for meetings with China Mobile. And while you could read his visit as a difference between Cook and Jobs — something to do with Cook’s particular style, say — these visits also serve to highlight the shift in China’s importance to Apple over the last couple years.
When Jobs was CEO, China wasn’t yet the largest source of activations for iOS products; the company’s most important devices. Neither had China yet begun bringing in more than half as much revenue to Apple’s coffers as the entire continent of Europe. And the country hadn’t yet embraced the iPhone in particular to the point where more than 10 million people use the device on a network (China Mobile) that doesn’t even officially support it.
So Cook going to China is probably as much about specific tasks, as generally strengthening relationships there.
Apple is also wisely looking to make its already popular brand more relevant in greater China through some added options in its upcoming desktop OS refresh. When the new OS X Mountain Lion debuts this summer it will have localized search and sharing options for the Chinese market built right in: Sina Weibo (China’s Twitter) and Baidu(s BIDU) (China’s Google Search).
But that’s just the desktop. What about mobile, Apple’s most important business? Well, on Monday a rumor began to circulate in Asia that Apple is considering making Baidu a search option within iOS. It’s an interesting possibility that isn’t completely crazy, considering its inclusion in Mountain Lion. The can be read as a middle finger to Google(s GOOG), of course, or it could be interpreted as Apple being as China-friendly as possible.
Update: An Apple spokesperson declined to comment on whether or not Baidu could be a future option for iOS search.