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Even before iPhone officially launched in China, there was considerable buzz in China’s tech press suggesting that Apple would ultimately come to some form of compromise with China’s telecom authorities and be allowed to launch a WiFi-enabled iPhone in China. That day may be coming as soon as late summer 2010 (timeline is purely my guess). Earlier this week, China Unicom Chairman, Chang Xiaobing, revealed (report via Owen Fletcher – ComputerWorld) that there are ongoing discussions over WiFi on iPhone;

China Unicom CEO - Chang Xiaobing

I know that in the market there is hope we will offer an iPhone with Wi-Fi … We have been holding talks with Apple in this area.

Chang Xiaobing did not say whether the iPhone would include China’s home grown version of WiFi (“WAPI”), but he did say that it “will satisfy demands in the Chinese market.”

This latest “WiFi” tease is no great surprise. Chang Xiaobing has made no secret of his support for WiFi on iPhone. In exchanges with the press before iPhone launched (October 2009), Chang Xiaobing almost had to bite his lip to avoid saying too much (definitive “WiFi is coming” statements would harm current iPhone sales). In Fall 2009, even before iPhone launched in China, Chang Xiaobing and other China Unicom execs were dropping hints in the tech press that WiFi would eventually be on the iPhone for China. China Unicom had suggested then (and now) that the ball is in Apple’s court.

The hurdle in the Fall of 2009 was China’s highly restrictive “WiFi on handsets” policy promoted and enforced by China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT). Prior to the Spring of 2009, WiFi was expressly forbidden on mobile devices with cellular (calling) service. In April 2009 there was a compromise policy authorized by the MIIT that allowed WiFi on handsets as long as the phone also included China’s home grown Wireless LAN Authentication and Privacy Infrastructure (WAPI). WAPI is China’s version of WiFi. Read more backgorund about WAPI/WiFi on iPhone > here

The rules (new policy allowing WAPI/WiFi in combination) changed very late in the game for Apple and it’s entirely possible that Apple had insufficient time (before Oct 2009 launch) to address the technical issues associated with building a WAPI/WiFi iPhone for China. Moreover, it runs against Apple’s DNA to build a special model iPhone solely for one market … even if that market is China. But … never say never! The current model iPhone for China Unicom is already a special production run (no WiFi chip + many “for China” apps preloaded). If China Unicom commits to a sufficiently large iPhone pre-purchase, then Apple may entertain the idea of a WAPI/WiFi iPhone. There were reports (later denied) last August that China Uniciom had agreed to pre-purchase 5,000,000 iPhones from Apple for $1.46 billion USD. This pre-purchase could help sway Apple in favor of the WAPI/WiFi combo.

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