Top Apple, China Mobile execs meet to talk “cooperation”

Surprising basically no one, Apple(s AAPL) CEO Tim Cook made time on his trip to China to meet Thursday with his company’s most critical non-partner: the chairman of China Mobile. China Mobile is the largest carrier in the world’s largest market for mobile phones: the company counts 650 million subscribers. But while its competitors China Telecom and China Unicom have partnered with Apple to sell the iPhone, China Mobile remains a holdout.
For now, the two appear to just be talking, with no partnership deal announced. A China Mobile spokesman told Reuters: “In the morning, Apple’s CEO Tim Cook visited China Mobile’s headquarters. China Mobile’s Chairman Xi Guohua and Tim Cook discussed matters of cooperation.”
It’s not just a question of whether China Mobile wants to sell the iPhone. Apple would have to make the decision to make a specific variant of the iPhone that supports China Mobile’s unique flavor of 3G. As my colleague, Kevin Fitchard, has written, Apple did this early on with Verizon(s VOD)(s VZW), a carrier with a customer base one-sixth the size of China Mobile’s. But it has so far held back from doing this for China Mobile; it’s not clear that’s a road Apple wants to go down, or if it would be able to make a device with decent profit margins.
China is crucial not only to Apple’s manufacturing capabilities, but to its future market share and profits: the region represents one of the fastest-growing markets for  Apple mobile devices. As the company looks to expand its smartphone customer base, this carrier alone could help it make faster inroads into China.