Nokia's China Mobile deal: A pawn in the subsidy fight with Apple?

Could Nokia’s partnership with China’s largest mobile operator prove Nokia CEO Stephen Elop was right when he said carriers, fearful of Apple’s dominance, would kickstart Windows Phone?

Nokia's newly inked partnership with China's largest mobile operator is an important milestone in the Finnish company's comeback, even if it is just a pawn in China Mobile's battle with Apple.  

The deal Nokia carved out with China Mobile – which saw operator agree to carry a version of Nokia's flagship Windows Phone 8 handset, the Lumia 920T, that has been tailored to the Chinese market – coincided with the biggest slide in Apple's share price since 1988, leaving analysts searching for explanations. 

Lumia 920
China Mobile will carry the Nokia Lumia 920T, which has been customised for the Chinese market. Credit: Josh Miller/CNET

Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster guessed Apple's share price may have fallen because some investors mistakenly believed the deal between Nokia and China Mobile was exclusive. Few believe that's the case, but for now, the partnership gives Nokia the first crack at China Mobile's 79 million 3G subscribers. (China Mobile's rivals, China Unicom and China Telecom, both carry the iPhone and offer Apple 70 million and 55 million 3G subscribers, respectively.)

Munster expects the iPhone to become available on China Mobile's network by the second half of 2013, some months later than some others are predicting.

Deutsche Bank analysts recently predicted any deal between China Mobile and Apple is likely to be some time away as the Chinese government, a major shareholder in the network, does not support what it calls the "heavy subsidy burden" tied to the iPhone. The other issue holding up an agreement is thought to be that the iPhone doesn't run on China Mobile's custom TD-SCDMA network.   

The incompatibility theory, however, is wrong, according to China Mobile president Li Yue. Shortly after the Lumia 920T announcement, he said that "business models" and revenue sharing, not TD-SCDMA, was keeping the iPhone away from its subscribers. 

While Nokia's Lumia 920T will have no easy time swaying Chinese consumers from locally made Androids, the partnership does show, as Nokia CEO Stephen Elop said at Nokia's Q3 earnings , that operators can change the balance of power in the current two-horse ecosystem race. 

Apple in all likelihood will reach the final third of China's current 3G market, but every month it refuses to lighten the "heavy subsidy burden" is another month someone else can make inroads in the country's mobile market.