Behind the Money

Apple Launching iPhone 4S in China, But It Doesn’t Understand Mandarin

On Friday, wireless customers in Hong Kong will be able to pre-order the iPhone 4S, featuring the “Siri” voice recognition technology that has made it a runaway hit in this country. There’s only one catch: the phone doesn’t recognize Mandarin or Cantonese.

Apple iPhone 4S

Siri—developed from military technology—only recognizes French, English and German. While Apple says the voice recognition is still in beta testing, it’s the most prominently featured part of the device in commercials and the driving force behind the booming U.S. sales.

“It is a little bit odd,” said Brian White, an analyst with Ticonderoga Securities. “Ultimately, it’s going to have to recognize Mandarin.”

The 4S will be available for sale in Hong Kong, South Korea and 13 other countries on November 11, according to a press release Tuesday which promotes Siri as “an intelligent assistant that helps you get things done just by asking.” But the release mentions nothing about additional language recognition

Last month, iPhone 4S pre-orders topped 1 million in the first 24 hours in its debut. First weekend sales of the device topped 4 million.

Ticonderoga’s White, who just got back from Hong Kong, isn’t that worried yet about the language barrier as many of the early adopters there speak English. White is among the most bullish Apple analysts on the Street with a $666 price target on the stock, in part because he predicts a mainland China launch of the new device in December.

“China has the largest wireless subscriber base in the world and this number could exceed 1 billion in the coming months,” wrote White in a note to clients. “With the ramp of China’s mobile Internet, the rapid transition of its nearly 1 billion wireless subscriber base to 3G represents a significant opportunity for Apple.”

Apple did not immediately return a call for comment on its language timeline for Siri. The company operates six retail stores in Greater China and the region accounted for 16 percent of total sales in the latest quarter, according to White.

Speaking Mandarin to the U.S. version of the 4S predictably yields little helpful results. When asked what the weather is like in the dialect, the often playful Siri responds in a female voice, “Good question; Can we get back to work now?”

If you speak English, French or German and live in Hong Kong, you can.

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For the best market insight, catch 'Fast Money' each night at 5pm ET, and the ‘Halftime Report’ each afternoon at 12:00 ET on CNBC. Follow @CNBCMelloy on Twitter.

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