Wayne Lam, smartphone analyst at IHS, suggests that Apple might break with its pattern of previous years and launch iPhones with slightly different configurations or components in different markets.
All "China Mobile is the white whale for Apple," he says, noting the two companies' long courtship. "It will be interesting to see how much they sacrifice to get there. A lot of it hinges on cost, subsidy and profit-sharing. It would be a big win for Apple."
The existing iPhone supports many different mobile networks, for example, which are not used in every country. This would reduce the cost of the device but introduce greater complexity in Apple's supply chain.
Benedict Evans, analyst at Enders Analysis, said it would be a "good PR and political move to do a dedicated event for China" by Apple, after attacks from the Chinese state media this year. That resulted in Apple issuing a warranty extension for Chinese iPhone customers, which incurred "material" costs for the company, contributing to a disappointing earnings report that quarter.
"If China Mobile is carrying the new iPhone then they can thank the CEO in person," he said. "Showing appropriate respect by coming in person has real value for a foreign brand."
China Mobile had 745 million subscribers in July and is trialing 4G "LTE" networks. Though less than a third of the Chinese mobile market today uses the 3G networks that are required for a good experience on devices like the iPhone, the Chinese smartphone market is growing rapidly, more than doubling in the first half of 2013 to around 150 million shipments, according to Gartner. That far exceeds Gartner's estimate for global smartphone growth of 46.5 percent in the second quarter.
Google announced on Tuesday that it had activated more than 1 billion Android devices to date, far exceeding the iPhone's total sales. Apple's sales fell 14 percent in China in the third quarter, partly due to inventory adjustments.
UBS has estimated that Apple could sell 17 million iPhones through China Mobile next year, accounting for more than half of its forecast for total iPhone unit growth, while analysts at Stifel say it could add $4 to $8 in earnings per share over the 12 months after launch.
Apple plans to hold near-simultaneous product launch events in California and Beijing for the first time next week, sparking hopes among investors for a long-awaited iPhone partnership with China Mobile.
China Mobile CEO:
"Total customers exceed 740 million. Total voice usage up 3.7%. Data business developed fast, with revenue up to 33.5% from telecommunication services. Wireless data traffic business has been a strong impetus. Revenue grew by 62.2%.
As 3G development accelerates, our customer base surpassed 137 million in the voice sales sold. TD-LTE development has been encouraging. The company is actively preparing for 4G commercialization, whilst trying to create value for our shareholders."