Apple launches online store in China

Apple on Wednesday launched online sales in China and made its App Store available in simplified Chinese, as the US technology giant expands aggressively in the world's largest mobile market.

The firm opened two new retail shops in mainland China last month as it launched the iPhone 4. It now has two shops in Beijing and two more in Shanghai, with a total of 25 outlets expected by the end of next year.

The company's coveted products, from the iPod to the iPad tablet computer, are also available from a number of authorised resellers in major cities - and widely in China's unofficial "grey" market.

Analysts said the introduction of new, easier ways for customers to access products showed that the China market has become increasingly important to the California-based company.

"We are thrilled to open our newest online store in China," Apple's chief operating officer Tim Cook said in a statement.

"With personalised engraving, configure-to-order options and free shipping on everything, the Apple Store is a great destination for our customers in China."

The launch of the App Store in simplified Chinese comes after Chinese users had complained that it was difficult to access content due to a lack of display in the local language.

Many users previously turned to websites that allow users to install pirated Chinese-language Apple-compatible software applications for free.

The Chinese-language App Store will offer customers access to more than 300,000 applications as well as "localised featured apps and charts of the most popular paid and free apps in China", the company said.

Analysts said the move signalled Apple's seriousness about penetrating the world's largest Internet and cell phone market.

"The growth pace of China's smartphone market, Chinese users' passion for Apple products and the great potential of the country's smartphone and mobile Internet devices market" had all boosted the firm's confidence, Wang Liusheng, an analyst with research firm Analysys International, told AFP.

The Chinese-language App Store will convince more customers to use authorised software and in turn support Apple's potential expansion in online advertising - a major growth spot, said Zhang Yanan with consultancy Zero2IPO.

"I think Apple has a long-term ambition for (online) advertising... and user base will be key," Zhang said.

She cautioned however that although the two new moves would certainly help sales, it would take time for the company to see significant results.

"It will alleviate the problem" of Apple's limited distribution network in China, which was reflected by the long queues and sporadic scuffles at the in-country debuts last month of the iPad and the iPhone 4, Zhang said.

"But it takes time for the business-to-consumer websites like the Apple online store to become influential" among potential customers, she said.

The iPhone 4 made its debut in China on September 25, only a week after Apple officially launched the iPad in the country, with some customers queuing for several days to get their hands on the computer.

China has at least 420 million web users and is also the world's largest mobile market with more than 833 million subscribers at the end of September, according to official data.

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