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China surpasses US as biggest market for Apple, Android devices

The world's most populous nation is now the biggest market for devices such as Apple's iPhone and those running Google's Android operating system, as a new report has China surpassing the U.S. for the total number of smart devices in operation.

Research firm Flurry tracked more than 2.4 billion anonymous, aggregated application sessions across more than 275,000 applications around the world, finding that the Chinese smart device market surpassed the United States market over the last month. In January 2013, China's 221 million total active iOS and Android devices was about equal to the 222 million in the United States, according to Flurry.

From January 2012 to January 2013, the U.S. added 55 million new smart devices. Over the same period of time, China added nearly three times as many: 150 million new devices. Flurry's report estimates that, had it not been for the traditionally heavy holiday shopping season, China would have overtaken the U.S. two months ago.

Taking into account the rate of growth for the mobile market, China should at the end of February have roughly 246 million devices, while the U.S. should have 230 million.

Given that China has more than four times the population of the United States, Flurry does not expect the U.S. to regain the lead in device activations.

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The only country that could come close is India, which has a population comparable to China's. India, though, currently stands at only 19 million active smart devices, by Flurry's estimate, and is not likely to challenge China in the near future. China and the United States each have more than five times the smart device install base of the next largest market, the United Kingdom.

Even given its massive install base, China still ranks among the top 10 fastest growing Android/iOS markets. At 209 percent growth year-over-year, it ranks sixth in therms of growth rate. Topping that list are Colombia and Vietnam, at 287 and 266 percent growth, respectively.

Flurry's report tags the mobile computing boom as the fastest-adopted technology revolution in history, pegging it at 10 times faster than the PC revolution and three times faster than the Internet boom. China is apparently now at the forefront of that revolution, and Apple in particular is keenly aware of the opportunities and challenges presented by the world's most populous country.

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Apple CEO Tim Cook has made multiple visits to China in the past year, meeting with executives from China Mobile, the country's — and the world's — largest wireless carrier. Such meetings, along with recent payment option changes, are aimed at getting Apple products into the hands of Chinese consumers, who typically cannot afford the premium pricing Apple attaches to its wares.

Among the Chinese that can afford Apple products, the company's offerings have proven an immense success. The iPhone 5 moved two million units in its first weekend of Chinese availability, and Apple's iPad mini reportedly debuted to insatiable demand.

Discussing the issue in quarterly conference calls and interviews, Cook has noted the importance of the Chinese market in Apple's future plans. The company already heavily relies on China and southeast Asia in general for supplies and cheap manufacturing labor, but figures like those seen in Flurry's report are leading analysts and investors to predict that the company must make lower-cost iDevices in order to fully address the mobile computing boom in emerging markets.