MacBook Air arrives in China to high hopes

Apple has started selling the new MacBook Air in China, a move one analyst said would prove a “big hit” in the country that delivered more than an eighth of the company’s revenues last quarter.

The latest version of the MacBook Air, which debuted in the U.S. and other markets last month, went on sale in China this week.

Currently, Apple’s online store for Chinese customers lists all four MacBook Air models—two each in 11- and 13-inch configurations -for sale, but with lengthy shipping delays.

The 11-inch MacBook Air’s estimated delivery time, according to the e-store, is 9-to-11 working days, while the 13-inch models will reach customers approximately 5 working days after ordering.

Those times, however, are improvements over last Friday, when the China online store said there was “no supply” of 11-inch MacBook Airs and that the larger 13-inch notebooks would be delivered two weeks after an order was placed.

MacBook Air supplies have been tight in the U.S. as well, with spot outages at some Apple stores and more severe shortages at a number of online and brick-and-mortar resellers.

“The new MacBook Air is poised to be a big hit in the Greater China region as more consumers can increasingly afford to own a PC, Apple fever is gaining momentum in the region and there is no laptop product on the market with the characteristics of the new MacBook Air,” said Brian White, an analyst with Ticonderoga Securities, in a note to clients last Friday.

Greater China is the term Apple uses to describe the sales region of the People’s Republic, Hong Kong and Taiwan. According to Apple’s most recent earnings statement, that area accounted for 13 percent of the company’s revenues for the quarter ending June 30.

The 11-inch MacBook Air is priced at 7,698 yuan and 9,198 yuan for the 64GB and 128GB flash drive models, respectively. At current exchange rates, those prices are equivalent to $1,203 and $1,438, significantly higher than the $999 and $1,199 U.S. customers pay.

Apple’s 13-inch MacBook Air costs 9,998 yuan and 12,498 yuan—the latter for the notebook with 256GB in storage space—or $1,563 and $1,954. U.S. list prices are $1,299 and $1,599 for the same models.

White, who was in Asia last week, said that the MacBook Air was launched in Hong Kong last week to “long lines and stock outs of certain models.”

Apple does not yet have a retail store of its own in Hong Kong—one is slated to open before the end of September—and relies on authorized resellers to sell its products from brick-and-mortar outlets.

Apple’s online store for Hong Kong residents shows better MacBook Air availability than in China: New orders ship within 24 hours, according to that store’s website.

White said that Apple has an opportunity to reap even more revenue from the region as China surpasses the U.S. in projected personal computer shipments next year.

Last week, research firm IDC said that computer shipments to China outnumbered those to the U.S. in the second quarter of this year—a first—but that the totals for 2011 will still give the edge to the United States. Next year, however, shipments to China will total 85.2 million, while U.S. shipments will top out at 76.6 million, IDC estimated.

“With IDC naming China the largest PC market in the world this week based on [second quarter] shipment data, we believe investors should increasingly think about the Mac opportunity for Apple in China over the next few years,” White advised.

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