China Mobile, by far the world’s largest carrier with more than 610 million subscribers as of March 2011, still doesn’t offer the most popular phone on the planet. Although we’ve been hearing whispers that Apple and China Mobile are engaged in talks over the iPhone, no hard evidence has been provided until today’s leaked shots allegedly showing off a next-generation iPhone prototype running on China Mobile’s 3G network.

Chinese-language web site Sohu.com re-published the images which we also included in this article for the sake of discussion. The phone appears to run baseband software with version number 06.10.01, which hasn’t been released yet. It also lacks an IMEI number, just like an iPhone 4 prototype we spotted on eBay. Evaluation devices normally have no IMEI number.

If there’s any substance to this leak, Apple might first bring an iPhone 4 version optimized for China Mobile’s 3G TD-SCDMA network before going big in the country with a 4G iPhone. Recently, China Mobile confirmed discussions with Apple related to bringing Apple’s handset to their upcoming 4G TD-LTE network, which is due for commercial trials next year. Apple’s operations chief Tim Cook, who is covering for Jobs during his medical leave of absence, was recently photographed waltzing into China Mobile’s headquarters. This led to speculation that the long-rumored iPhone distribution deal will soon materialize, greatly expanding Apple’s distribution footprint in the 1.33 billion people market of China. Nevertheless, China Mobile has detected some 5.6 million iPhones on its network.

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