The official availability of the iPhone 4 is likely to limit such gray market sales, but there's still a reason for iPhone customers in China to buy an iPhone 4 from outside of the country: The iPhone 4 sold in China has been outfitted for censorship.
Stefan Geens, editor of geo-blog Ogle Earth, has posted an analysis of the Chinese iPhone 4 and found that its Maps application will only display the censored version of Google Maps approved by the Chinese government. Apple's Maps application, which comes with every iPhone and cannot be removed, relies on Google Maps.
"The built-in Maps app is crippled," he wrote in a blog post on Sunday. "My phone's base map is hard-wired to Google Maps' censored dataset for China, where the depiction of China's borders complies with the official propaganda of the Chinese government."
Google currently offers a Chinese-government-approved Google Maps (ditu.google.cn) for users in China and an uncensored version for users in Hong Kong (maps.google.com.hk).
With an iPhone 3GS, it would be possible to use the Maps application and see the maps presented to people in America or Europe. One could use a VPN and see the world the way the Chinese government does not want it to be seen. But the Chinese iPhone 4 appears to include localized software that prevents this, inside or outside of China.
There's another difference too: An iPhone 4 that was bought outside of China will serve Safari's Google search bar results based on the device's region format setting (under Settings > General > International). On the Chinese iPhone 4, the region format setting is ignored and all searches submitted through Safari's Google search bar send the user to a Google.cn landing page. The user can still click through to Google's uncensored server in Hong Kong but the extra step isn't the best possible user experience.
Apple did not respond to a request for comment. Google also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Chinese government requires that maps depict its view of the world. Companies that offer mapping services must receive government approval to operate in the country.
Earlier this month, China's State Bureau of Surveying and Mapping handed out its first Internet map licenses to 31 service providers. Google was not among them. Since March, Google has been reviewing the possibility of offering its map service in China while complying both with map censorship requirements and its pledge not to censor search results in China.