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Great wall of customers greets iPhone 4 in China

iPhone love seems to be on the rise in the world's largest mobile market, as the iPhone 4's Chinese launch looks nothing like last year's lukewarm reception for the iPhone 3 there.

Despite a somewhat tepid reception last year for an earlier version of the iPhone, customers in China turned out in force today to try to get their hands on the latest incarnation, the iPhone 4, as it made its debut in the country.

According to various reports, more than 1,000 people mobbed the new Apple Store in Beijing's Joy City shopping mall today, and carrier China Unicom said it had taken almost 50,000 preorders for the device in one day. That compares with a mere 5,000 iPhones sold last year during the first weekend that the earlier version of the gadget was available in China.

On a faster boat to China.
On a faster boat to China. Apple

That version was 3G only, with Wi-Fi disabled because of Chinese regulations prohibiting gadgets that don't use the country's WAPI (Wired Authentication and Privacy Infrastructure) wireless standard. The iPhone 4, however, has been made Wi-Fi-ready for the Chinese market--Apple having acquired a network access license in the country in July.

The price, too, has eased. A 16GB iPhone 4 is selling for about $743 and the 32GB version for about $892 without a contract at Apple Stores in China, the company said earlier this week. (The phone will also be available through China Unicom with a two-year contract at prices Apple did not detail.) Last year's iPhone 3--Wi-Fi-less in China--went on sale in the country at about $732 for an 8GB model and about $1,025 for a 32GB version.

Apple is no doubt pleased by the seeming uptick in iPhone love among the Chinese--the country is the world's largest mobile market. The company opened two new Apple Stores there over the weekend, according to an item in The Wall Street Journal: the Joy City location, and another across town at a mall called The Village. That doubles the number of Apple's Chinese retail outlets. The company plans to open 25 Apple Stores in China by the end of next year, the Journal said. Apple also began selling its iPad in the country on September 17.

Still, there's a ways to go. When the iPhone 4 debuted in the United States earlier this year, it sold, according to Apple, 1.7 million units in three days, the company's most successful product launch ever. And Apple was only the fifth-largest smartphone seller in China as of the second quarter of this year, according to figures quoted by the Journal. Nokia held the top spot.

On a side note, Apple may be able to duck iPhone 4 "Antennagate" issues in China--China Unicom said last month that the device would be sold with a free case there.