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Apple's mobile partner in China announces its own iPhone rival

Dana Franklin

The parent company of China Unicom, Apple's sole partner for carrying the iPhone in China, revealed plans on Monday to release its own mobile computing platform. Dubbed "Wophone," the platform will compete directly with Apple's iOS and Google's Android.

Last year, Apple partnered with China Unicom, the nation's second largest mobile carrier, to release the iPhone 4 in China. The exclusive availability of the iPhone on China Unicom's network helped the carrier compete with rivals China Mobile and China Telecom for new customers in China's nascent 3G wireless services market.

In a statement, China Unicom said it hopes Wophone will help the company and its manufacturing partners develop a broader variety of more affordable 3G devices and introduce them to market more quickly. The rapid introduction of new 3G devices could help woo new customers away from market-leading China Mobile who released its own mobile platform, "Ophone," in 2009.

China Mobile leads the wireless market in China with about 589 million total subscribers, but has only 22.6 million customers for its higher revenue 3G services. China Unicom said 15.5 million of its 170 million subscribers were on 3G at the end of January.

China Unicom expects local development of software and applications for the Wophone platform to benefit the nation's overall technology development and "break up the foreign smartphone platform monopoly." According to analysts, 60.1 percent of the 102.3 million smartphones in China run Nokia's Symbian platform. Approximately 13.1 percent use Microsoft's Windows Mobile, and 10.7 percent run Google's Android. Apple's iOS has a 5.4 percent share.

The Wophone platform offers a Linux-based operating system designed to run on smartphones and tablet computers. A spokesman for China Unicom said development of the new platform received support from government agencies, including the National Development and Reform Commission and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.

Several companies based in Asia and the United States have announced plans to build Wophone-compatible devices. In China, ZTE, Huawei, TCL, and Beijing Tianyu Communication Equipment are all committed to the new platform. Also, Inventec Appliances and HTC in Taiwan, Samsung Electronics in South Korea, and Motorola in the US have agreed to build handsets for Wophone.

China Unicom expects the first Wophone handsets to be available soon but has not announced a specific release date.

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