On Monday, China Mobile's website was taking orders for a mystery phone called "Ming Xing," or Bright Star. It showed a handset silhouette like that of an iPhone but gave no brand name.
The timing looks right. Just as Apple's sales growth in China cools, China Mobile received approval Dec. 5 to start operating the world's fourth-generation network and needs to market it.
State-owned China Mobile has more than 750 million mobile accounts. But its new 4G system — based on China's homegrown TD-LTTE standard — is unfamiliar to demanding Chinese customers.
The iPhone's glamor might help to win them over.
"Leveraging this brand, China Mobile could build a reputation for their network," said analyst Jane Zhang of Gartner.
For its part, Apple would gain access to a bigger, more robust network. It has faster data speeds and suffers fewer complaints about dropped calls than those of two smaller state-owned rivals.
"They need China Mobile more than China Mobile needs them," Zhang said.
How the benefits shake out for each side will depend on what deal the two giant companies, each with powerful leverage, can strike on how to split the costs of iPhone handsets. And on how Apple copes with intense competition from Samsung and other brands.
Forecasts of additional iPhone sales in China vary widely, from 10 million to as many as 40 million units. That would be on top of the 50 million iPhones analysts estimate have been sold in China in the past 2½ years.
Apple already has agreements with China's two smaller state-owned carriers, China Telecom Ltd. and China Unicom Ltd. They have 180 million and 275 million mobile accounts, respectively. Almost anywhere else, that would make them the biggest national carrier. But together they are barely half of China Mobile's total.
Customers responding to a survey by Bernstein Research cited China Mobile as their favored carrier. But they said that, due to its lack of iPhone support, they use the smaller companies for data service.
Customers who already own iPhones might switch to China Mobile for data as well as voice service, Bernstein said. That would mean a surge in business for China Mobile but little payoff for Apple.
"We could see an initial surge in iPhones following availability at China Mobile, but weaker sales going forward," Bernstein said in a report.
Apple could use the boost. Two years ago, eager buyers in Beijing waited overnight in freezing weather for the iPhone 4S. But that excitement had dissipated by this year's September release of the latest update, the 5S. Customers who bought earlier iPhones said it offered too few improvements.