(Adds comments from microblog users in China)
By Gerry Shih
BEIJING, Sept 11 (Reuters) - Millions of people in China, increasingly a critical pillar of Apple Inc’s business, may have to wait until the year-end before they can buy the new iPhone 6.
Although the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus will go on sale on Sept. 19 in the United States and other markets, Apple is yet to set a release date for China, the world’s biggest smartphone market. China Mobile, the key distributor of the new iPhone with more than 700 million subscribers on its sprawling network, declined to comment.
At China Mobile’s Beijing branch, two customer service representatives and a sales agent told Reuters they had received a staff-wide memo on Thursday morning informing them that the phones would not be shipped until “the end of the year.” The memo could not be verified by Reuters.
But if the year-end projection were true, then the staggered global debut would be a departure from one year ago when Apple released the iPhone 5s and 5c simultaneously in 11 countries and territories including the United States, China, Hong Kong, Japan and Germany.
By late Thursday, rumours that the iPhone could be delayed until December had begun spreading on the Chinese social network Weibo. Many “huangniu” - salespeople who smuggle iPhones into mainland China from Hong Kong at a price - also started to tout devices for sale from late September.
Chinese media speculated on Thursday that Apple had not yet received a routine certification from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), which inspects new smartphones before they are allowed on Chinese carrier networks.
The ministry website, which notifies the public of newly approved phone models, did not list the new iPhones as of Thursday. If the MIIT certificate were the only hurdle, iPhone sales could theoretically begin as soon as they are approved.
Adding to the confusion this week was a page on Apple’s website that said consumers in Australia, China, Hong Kong and Singapore would be able to buy the new iPhones on Sept. 26 as part of the first wave of sales in Asia.
In an overnight edit, Apple deleted the reference to the date and removed China altogether from the list of Asian markets to receive imminent iPhone shipments.
The speculation over the release date comes at a time when Apple increasingly relies on China, which now carries Apple’s phones on all of its three network service providers including China Telecom and China Unicom Hong Kong.
The April-June quarter saw a 50-percent year-on-year surge in iPhone sales in China, effectively salvaging an otherwise lacklustre second quarter for the Cupertino-based company.
Apple declined to comment on its release plans, saying only that “China is a key market for us and we will get there as soon as possible”.
Third-party sellers and sales representatives at China Mobile’s Beijing branch said the launch date had been pushed back from when they had expected, but offered differing accounts of when the phone would go on sale.
A spokeswoman for China Mobile could not confirm whether there had been a staff-wide notice saying the iPhone 6 would only start shipping at the year-end, or otherwise provide comment.
China Unicom and China Telecom could not be reached for comment.
“Darn, what should I do?” lamented one user named Super Jiang on Weibo, China’s biggest microblog. “I’m miserable. Should I grab a Hong Kong version or wait until the end of the year for a mainland version?”
Although Apple has never officially announced a release date in China, Chinese carriers had stoked excitement in recent weeks by taking tens of thousands of pre-orders for an unnamed device accompanied by a not-so-subtle number “6” graphic.
Apple’s status in China has been the subject of speculation after reports emerged last month that the government has banned Apple products from official use. The reports were later found to be inaccurate. (Reporting by Gerry Shih and Beijing newsroom; Editing by Stephen Coates and Ryan Woo)