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BEIJING (AP) – Apple’s iPhone made its long-awaited formal debut in the world’s most populous mobile phone market, without a key feature and at higher prices than widely available black market models.

Apple’s local partner, China Unicom Ltd., hopes the sleek smartphone will give it an edge against giant rival China Mobile Ltd., the world’s biggest phone company by subscribers.

Unicom started selling iPhones equipped for third-generation service Friday night at 2,000 stores in areas as farflung as Tibet. Chinese news reports say Unicom hopes to sell 5 million in three years, but the company declined to confirm that.

“Ever since we first launched the iPhone, we greatly anticipated bringing it to China,” an Apple vice president, Greg Joswiak, said at a launch ceremony at a Beijing shopping mall.

Unicom’s first iPhones lack WiFi, a possible handicap with sophisticated, demanding Chinese buyers. The technology, a key part of the iPhone’s appeal, allows the phones in other markets to use free wireless networks in cafes and offices to download e-mail and the latest applications.

“There’s going to be a perception that the phone they have is dumbed down from the one that somebody has in California,” said Duncan Clark, chairman of BDA China Ltd., a Beijing-based technology research firm. “We’ve seen before that Chinese consumers don’t like to be treated like second-class citizens.”

Apple Inc. and Unicom also could face competition from an unusual source: unlocked iPhones brought in from abroad that have WiFi.

There are already an estimated 1.5 million to 2 million such phones using China Mobile 3G service that allows Internet access and other features.

Unicom’s prices range from 4,999 yuan ($730) to 6,999 yuan ($1,025) for the high-end, 32-gigabyte iPhone 3GS. That is 20 percent above the 5,700 yuan ($835) charged by merchants at Chinese street markets for a 3GS with WiFi.

“We’re not just offering the hardware, the handset, but post-sales support and a whole package of services,” Song Limei, deputy general manager of Unicom’s personal communication division, said at the launch ceremony.

Zhang Yuan, a 25-year-old Beijing magazine editor, was among about 200 people who waited in a chilly wind to buy phones at the ceremony.

“I have been an Apple fan for a long time,” she said. “I wouldn’t choose a counterfeit or unlocked phone because I wouldn’t trust the quality.”

Another customer, Yang Yi, a physician at the Chinese capital’s Peking Union Hospital, said he didn’t worry about the lack of WiFi.

“There are not so many WiFi hotspots around the country anyway,” he said.

The iPhone’s awkward, delayed entry into China reflects the regulatory and technical hurdles of a fast-changing market where other global technology companies have struggled to establish themselves.

Unicom’s iPhones lack WiFi because it was temporarily banned by Beijing, which was promoting a rival Chinese system, according to BDA. The ban was relaxed in May after manufacturing had begun.

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