China Unicom Readies Launch of New App Store

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China Unicom is launching a new online app store as more mobile carriers and handset manufacturers look to cash in on China's app market.

China Unicom, the country's second-largest mobile operator with 162 million subscribers, will officially launch its Wostore early next month, said a company spokesman. But the store is already available in a beta version at its website, featuring more than 2,000 apps.

Wostore will join a crowded market for app stores in China, as China Unicom's rivals have already opened their own. China Mobile, with 569 million subscribers, launched its Mobile Market last year. By the end of this June, the site had 20,000 apps available and had netted 25 million downloads.

China Telecom, with 82 million mobile subscribers, also launched its eStorethis past March. It features more than 5,000 apps.

App stores have been seen as a potential revenue stream that mobile operators are trying to tap into. At the same time, handset manufacturers like Lenovo and Motorola have also launched their own app stores for their devices in the Chinese market. In the case of Motorola, the company's Shop4Apps recorded its one millionth download from the country last month.

"It's a little bit of a gold rush right now," said Mark Natkin, managing director of Beijing-based Marbridge Consulting. "Everybody is anticipating great performance from app stores, so everybody is trying to launch one. I think eventually a few of them will emerge as dominant platforms."

However, both Apple's App Store and Google's Android Market have yet to take off in China in the way they have in the U.S.

Currently Apple only holds 5.9 percent of the smartphone market in China, putting it fifth behind Nokia, Samsung, Motorola and Sony Ericsson, according to Beijing-based research firm Analysys International.

Users of the iPhone and iPad in China can buy from Apple's App Store, which has more than 280,000 apps. But they must do so using a dual-currency credit card, which many Chinese consumers do not have. Other app stores in China can facilitate easier payment by allowing purchases via the mobile carrier's phone bill.

China Unicom is the sole carrier of the Apple iPhone in China. However, there is no official word on whether the Wostore will offer iPhone Apps in the future. Apple could not be reached for a comment, and the WoStore currently does not sell any iPhone apps, according to its website.

As for Android Market, the app store has yet to be offered in China. Google could not be reached for immediate comment.

"If Google's Android Market comes to China, this could really reshape the app store market in the country," said Liu Liang, an analyst with technology consultancy iResearch. Liu noted that the same could happen if Apple's App Store became a bigger hit in China. Already, Apple's iPhone 4 sold out in many stores across the country when it was launched last month.

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