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Friday, September 6, 2013

New iPhones Are Said to Be Ready for a Rollout in Beijing

TOKYO â€" Apple is positioning itself for a comeback attempt in Asia.

With sales of its iPhones falling in China, the biggest smartphone market in the world, the company is set to announce two new versions of the device in Beijing next week, according to an announcement that slipped out Thursday on a Chinese social media site.

In Japan, where Apple is much stronger but faces a renewed challenge from domestic smartphone makers like Sony, the company has struck a deal to sell the iPhone via the biggest mobile phone carrier, NTT Docomo, two people briefed on the situation said Friday.

Apple has scheduled a news conference for Beijing on Wednesday, only hours after a similar event at its headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. The company has long been expected to announce two new phones there â€" an upgraded version of its flagship iPhone 5, as well as a lower-cost phone aimed at people in China and other emerging markets.

Apparent confirmation of the new lineup came Thursday when China Telecom, a network operator that offers the existing iPhone 5, briefly posted a message via its official customer service account on a microblogging platform, Sina Weibo. In the posting, China Telecom solicited preorders for the new devices, which it identified as the iPhone 5S, the high-end model, and iPhone 5C, the lower-cost handset.

The message was quickly removed, and it is not clear whether it had been posted in error or as part of a calculated marketing campaign. China Telecom is in a battle for subscribers against two other major operators, China Unicom, which carries the iPhone, and China Mobile, which does not.

Ivan Wong, a spokesman for China Telecom, declined to comment, citing nondisclosure agreements.

Since news of Apple’s marketing event in Beijing emerged, there has been speculation that the company would use the occasion to announce an agreement with China Mobile, the biggest mobile operator in China, to sell the iPhone. Doing so would give Apple access to the company’s enormous subscriber base â€" 744 million as of July 31.

That would be a much-needed lift for Apple in China, where it slipped into sixth place among smartphone makers in the second quarter, with a share of only 4.8 percent, according to Canalys, a research firm.

“We have heard that there’s an event next week, but we can’t comment on it,” said Rainie Lei, a spokeswoman for China Mobile. Apple did not return calls.

Even if Apple does not immediately sell iPhones via China Mobile, the fact that it scheduled a marketing event in Beijing so quickly on the heels of the one in California indicates that the company is paying China greater attention.

“It shows that they are acknowledging that China is one of the most important markets they need to focus on,” said Nicole Peng, an analyst at Canalys.

The Weibo message from China Telecom also stated that China would be either “the first” or “one of the first” countries to get the new phones, based on Chinese phrasing that could be translated either way.

In the past, Apple did not make iPhones available in China until several months after they had gone on sale in the United States. In the meantime, many Chinese consumers chose phones from growing domestic brands like Huawei, Lenovo, ZTE, Coolpad and Xiaomi.

In Japan, the biggest mobile carrier, Docomo, has been an Apple refusenik, until now. The company has 60 million customers, but it has been losing market share to the other two main mobile operators in Japan, SoftBank and KDDI, which operates under the brand name au. Both of those companies have been marketing Apple’s phones aggressively. Still, Apple’s share of smartphone sales slipped to 30 percent in the second quarter from 36 percent in the first quarter, according to Canalys. Sony’s share rose to 22 percent from 11 percent.

Docomo has countered with smartphones from domestic providers as well as from Samsung Electronics of South Korea. Japanese brands have been falling by the wayside. One company, NEC, said this summer that it was getting out of the smartphone business and another, Panasonic, followed suit this past week. But sales of Sony smartphones have been rising and some of the other survivors, including Fujitsu and Sharp, have held firm â€" in Japan, at least.

Docomo in the past balked at signing on with Apple because it was trying to develop its own mobile content and applications. But the people briefed on the situation confirmed reports in the Japanese news media stating that Docomo had reversed course. It was not immediately clear when sales of iPhones via Docomo would begin, though.

“No decision has been made at this point that requires disclosure,” said Takuya Ori, a spokesman for Docomo.

Neil Gough contributed reporting from Hong Kong.