Surprising basically no one, Apple(s AAPL) CEO Tim Cook made time on his trip to China to meet Thursday with his company’s most critical non-partner: the chairman of China Mobile. China Mobile is the largest carrier in the world’s largest market for mobile phones: the company counts 650 million subscribers. But while its competitors China Telecom and China Unicom have partnered with Apple to sell the iPhone, China Mobile remains a holdout.
For now, the two appear to just be talking, with no partnership deal announced. A China Mobile spokesman told Reuters: “In the morning, Apple’s CEO Tim Cook visited China Mobile’s headquarters. China Mobile’s Chairman Xi Guohua and Tim Cook discussed matters of cooperation.”
It’s not just a question of whether China Mobile wants to sell the iPhone. Apple would have to make the decision to make a specific variant of the iPhone that supports China Mobile’s unique flavor of 3G. As my colleague, Kevin Fitchard, has written, Apple did this early on with Verizon(s VOD)(s VZW), a carrier with a customer base one-sixth the size of China Mobile’s. But it has so far held back from doing this for China Mobile; it’s not clear that’s a road Apple wants to go down, or if it would be able to make a device with decent profit margins.
China is crucial not only to Apple’s manufacturing capabilities, but to its future market share and profits: the region represents one of the fastest-growing markets for Apple mobile devices. As the company looks to expand its smartphone customer base, this carrier alone could help it make faster inroads into China.