Chinese iPhone 4S launch the one to watch as lines grow

Apple (s aapl) is in for another huge iPhone 4S launch, if early lineups are any indication. Penn Olson reports that lines outside Apple’s five official retail stores in China have already extended into the hundreds ahead of Friday’s launch.
Photos from Chinese microblogging site Sina Weibo clearly show huge crowds at the two Beijing and three Shanghai locations, despite temperatures between 32 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The lineups are likely for people who want to try to get an iPhone off-contract and unlocked, starting at 4,988 yuan, or around $790. Shoppers can also buy directly from China Unicom,(s chu) which even has some pricing plans that allow users to pick up the hardware free, but monthly contract requirements for those subsidies are quite steep. Plus, buying unlocked makes it easier for scalpers to resell devices through unofficial channels.

When it launched in the U.S., the iPhone 4S was also greeted with long lines, and in Hong Kong, attendance at Apple’s retail flagship store numbered in the thousands. The Chinese launch of the 4S should be the biggest since it debuted in October, since China is now Apple’s second-most-important market, and according to at least one estimate, it’s conceivable that Apple sold more iPhones in China during its fiscal fourth quarter of 2011 than it did in the U.S.
The staggered launch means that sales resulting from the Chinese launch of the iPhone 4S will appear as part of Apple’s second fiscal quarter results and not those that will be reported on Jan. 24. That could help Apple post higher iPhone shipments next quarter even without the holiday bump, especially if its regulatory progress with getting a China Telecom-compatible(s cha) version of the 4S to market bears fruit within the next couple of months.