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Will Nokia, Microsoft Make Life Tough for Apple in China?

Apple (AAPL) bulls must have just missed the news out of China. It's difficult to blame them -- it hit the wire over the weekend. And by Monday, nothing was going to kill the high of a $30.90 increase in the price of America's favorite stock.

Leave it to DigiTimes to downplay the news. At the same time, you've got to give them credit for actually running the story in the first place. Few others did.

In case you missed it, backed by Microsoft (MSFT), Nokia (NOK) actually owns a larger chunk of the Chinese smartphone market than Apple -- 7% versus 6%. Google's (GOOG) Android operation system dominates in the country at over 60%. Now, to be fair to both sides (as if it has to be a dichotomous battle between good and evil), imprecision abounds.

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First, a Microsoft executive broke the news and, as DigiTimes notes, these smartphone market share numbers come from a time period only known as "recently." To get our hands on anything definitive, we'll need the objective monthly and/or quarterly data from a source such as Gartner.

That said, let's face the facts. If word came out that Apple, for example, sent its CEO over to China to shake hands with politicians or a few Chinese guys got into a scuffle in front of an Apple store, media outlets would trip over one another to report the news. I can't blame them. There's no question that when the company Steve Jobs built and Tim Cook can only hope to sustain does something, it's big news. Frankly, it deserves a bigger headline and wider distribution than when something happens with Nokia or even Microsoft.

Still, you might expect more than a handful of folks to report these early, even if imprecise, results out of China. Nokia's Lumia, launched in March with China Telecom, is apparently selling well. But not so fast. Here's more imprecision from the DigiTimes report:

... [S]ome industry sources fear the brisk sales could be short-lived. The strong sales enjoyed by Lumia phones at present are typical short-term results for the newly launched model, and it remains to be seen whether the sales momentum will continue, commented industry sources. Given that sales of iPhones totaled over five million units in China in the first quarter of 2012, it would be difficult for Windows Phone models to yield the same results in a quarter, the sources commented.

I didn't think that this type of news would require a reporter to protect his source.

Who are these "industry sources?" Apple PR? The DigiTimes intern from South Central Taipei High School? A professor from the University of Cupertino's marketing department? Sounds like a convenient way to toss a wet blanket on what could turn into a meaningful story, assuming it is not already.

Please don't misconstrue what I am saying here.

I am on record with what is a pretty sensible prediction: Windows Phone will become a formidable number three to Android and Apple in the mobile market. That will be enough to lift the stock prices of both Microsoft and Nokia and turn Nokia back into somewhat of a player again. That's why I do not see the coming Windows 8 challenge as "a dichotomous battle between good and evil."

There's more than enough room for several operating systems to coexist in a world where smartphone adoption runs off of the charts.

Of course, the 0.1% (that represents the proportion of rabid Apple permabulls who make passionate comments on articles to the overall readership of the article) will call me names like "hack" and worse. They'll claim that nobody reported this story because it's not news. It's a temporary bump for something shiny and new.

Maybe so. But it's worth keeping an eye on.

For Nokia and Microsoft, it's a big deal. While the rest of the world seems to think the recent Lumia launches represent the company's major pushes, they're tantamount to test runs. The real deal comes when Windows 8 smartphones and tablets hit the market later this year. In other words, you really have not seen anything yet.

If the China trend continues, it will not make Windows Phone No. 2 and iPhone No. 3. But, it can likely give Nokia a lift and provide Apple with a ding. If investors sense any bumps in the apparently smooth road Apple and its bulls believe the company faces with Chinese consumers, expect serious downward pressure on the stock, even if Asia-Pacific sales continue to grow by over 100%. The bar is set quite high.

It's this type of news that Apple bulls, as well as the media that caters to their obsession, choose to ignore. And it's exactly this type of blow-off that could come back to haunt investors when they're least expecting it.

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