John Paczkowski

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China Unicom: “iPhone Will Become China’s Best-Selling Smartphone.” We’re Just Not Sure When.

iphone-china-unicom-111A month after the iPhone’s sluggish launch in China, sales seem to be picking up. Though it sold just 5,000 handsets during its first weekend at market, China Unicom, Apple’s (AAPL) carrier partner in the country, says it has now sold more than 100,000 units of the super-smartphone since it went on sale Oct. 30.

So, 100,000 iPhones sold in 40 days. That’s better than some had feared. But it’s nowhere near what we’ve come to expect from the iPhone, which sold 270,000 units in the first 30 hours it was on sale in the U.S. in 2007. And it’s a pittance for China Unicom, whose subscribers number somewhere around 144 million.

Certainly, 100,000 iPhone users aren’t going to do much for the carrier’s bottom line. Still, China Unicom says it is happy with the device’s performance so far and insists it is on track to hit long-term sales targets: “iPhone will become China’s best-selling smartphone.”

Said China Unicom Chief Executive Chang Xiaobing: “iPhone has been a great success and we are very pleased with the response from Chinese consumers.”

That might sound like a bit of an exaggeration given the iPhone’s modest sales numbers in a country whose wireless market is the world’s largest. But consider this: There are some two million gray-market iPhones in use in China. And China Unicom’s network is the only one that’s compatible with their 3G functions. So it’s entirely possible that Unicom, while it might not be selling a lot of iPhones, is selling a lot of iPhone data plans to owners of gray market devices who want to run them on the carrier’s network.