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Wednesday, December 17, 2008, 08:45 am PT (11:45 am ET)

Apple seen with new iMacs, Chinese iPhone soon into 2009

Even as it's besieged by a weak world economy, Apple is expected to bounce back with new iMacs at the start of 2009 and to launch the iPhone in China soon afterwards.

Though sharing the now widespread belief that Apple was badly hurt in November by an overall down market and a late Black Friday that cut back on post-Thanksgiving holiday shopping, analyst Ben Reitzes of Barclays Capital expects Apple to make the iMac one of its first updates in the new year as part of an effort to revitalize its lineup that will likely include the rest of its Mac desktops as well.

The financial expert doesn't venture an estimate as to how much the absence of a new iMac has hurt Apple's holiday sales but provides tracking data that shows Apple's desktop sales virtually hinging on the all-in-one computer. The system continues to be Amazon's bestselling desktop of any kind and the third-strongest Mac on Apple's own online store charts, sitting just behind the MacBook and MacBook Pro.

The NPD Group, which is responsible for the very data producing a slew of analyst reports this week, has itself blamed the iMac for much of Apple's sales decline in November and has noted that the lack of updates likely accelerated a 38 percent drop in desktop sales year over year.

Countering the negative impressions of Apple's desktop performance, Reitzes believes that Apple should shore up some of its weaknesses with the Mac by launching the iPhone in China.

The far Eastern country is due to start handing out government licenses for its TD-SCDMA wireless technology in early 2009. As the format is virtually the de facto 3G standard in China due to government support, its absence is suspected of being the primary obstacle to introducing an iPhone model; Apple has had no trouble offering iPhone 3G as-is in more Westernized regions where the established HSPA standard dominates, such as Hong Kong and Taiwan.

This paves the way for a launch in China by the mid-point of next year, Reitzes says.

Apple is commonly thought to be negotiating almost exclusively with the Chinese government's preferred carrier, China Mobile, and as a result may be dependent on its choice of network standards. One as yet uncorroborated report has suggested that the American company may have been asked to strip out 3G and Wi-Fi for a one-off iPhone model to promote the use of TD-SCDMA and prevent defections to carriers supporting foreign 3G standards.

Until then, Barclays' researcher believes Apple faces a tougher climate for iPhone sales and may have to make do with expanded US sales at Walmart to "help fill the void" of business from the world's most populous nation.