China's New 'Love Craze' -- Black Market iPhones

New Jersey student George Hotz's highly publicized unlocking feat of Aug. 21 injected some supply into the Chinese iPhone market, and the prices quickly dropped to $700. But by the end of the month, local iPhones still couldn't send text messages in Chinese. And most available iPhones were still not completely unlocked. They could only make calls, not receive any.

The tipping point came Oct. 6, when someone uploaded a text-messaging program to a Chinese iPhone forum. (Text messaging is more important to Chinese than to American cellphone users, partly because mobile phones in China don't have automated voicemail.) The price of an 8-GB iPhone dropped below $500, and Sina blog entries on the subject climbed from one per month to 20 posts per day, covering everything from cracking manuals to love letters. (One forlorn post reads, "More beautiful than a beautiful woman, iPhone I want you, quickly get on the market.")

Although most Chinese iPhones can now make and receive calls, surf the internet by Wi-Fi and download songs, the device still disappoints a good portion of Chinese customers. Blogger Ke Suowo summarizes the shortcomings: Even though local iPhones have a Chinese operating system, sending Chinese text messages is still a hassle. Incoming text messages appear on the iPhone's SMS application, but to send a message, you have to switch to a separate, third-party text-messaging app. To reply to a text message, you have to memorize the sender's number, open the text-messaging program, plug in the number and the Chinese text, and then send the message. There is no text-message forwarding.

Ouch.

Yet these practical concerns haven't cooled China's iPhone fervor. Chinese netizens still douse their posts' praise in exclamation marks and spend hours shopping for iPhone accessories. According to one blogger, the iPhone has become the Chinese elite's way of showing off. Ke Suowo concludes: "All of Apple's products make me both love and hate them, but I still deeply love Apple, because it stands out the most."

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