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    Apple signs iPhone deal with Chinese mobile carrier

    NEW YORK — Just about any way you slice it, 763 million customers is a huge potential pie.

    On Sunday, Apple and China Mobile announced a deal to bring the iPhone to the Chinese carrier, the largest wireless network in the world.

    An agreement with China Mobile could, at least initially, give Apple Inc. a big lift into the vast Chinese market, analysts say, increasing its worldwide sales. But the company will face many challenges in capturing the Chinese market.

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    While Apple’s smartphones are dominant in the United States and a major player in Europe, the company has struggled to gain much traction in China, where phones using Google’s Android operating system dominate for several reasons, particularly price.

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    In China, some smartphone makers, like Huawei, Coolpad, and ZTE, offer Android phones for less than $100, while Apple lists the iPhone 5C at $739, and the 5S at $871.

    Apple is the number five smartphone player in the country, behind Samsung and the Chinese handset makers Huawei, Lenovo, and Yulong.

    The slow sales of the iPhone in China are reflected in the overall shrinkage of the company’s share of the global smartphone market — to 12.1 percent in the third quarter, down from 14.3 percent in the same period a year ago, according to the market research firm Gartner.

    Still, analysts were optimistic Apple would sell a lot of phones through China Mobile, though they offer wide-ranging estimates. William V. Power, an analyst for Robert W. Baird, said Apple could sell as many as 30 million more iPhones in 2014, while Toni Sacconaghi, an analyst for Sanford C. Bernstein research, offered a more conservative estimate of 15 million. Apple sold about 23 million iPhones in China over the last year, Sacconaghi said.