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Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Any smartphone you like, as long as it's Nokia

I'm in Georgia (the country, not the state) at the moment. Escaping the continual rain, I wandered into a store of mobile operator Beeline (owned by Russia's Vimplecom) this morning. This is probably a flagship store, on the main shopping street called Rustaveli in the capital Tbilisi.

There was a large glass cabinet on one side, with maybe 40-60 phones on display. All switched off, and with unsubsidised retail price stickers.

About 60% of the phones were Nokias - basically the complete range from low-end handsets right up to the N900 and all the E-series smartphones, although I didn't see the very newest announcements like the N8. Most were in the range of 600-1000 Lari (about $250-450).

There were also a fair few Samsungs, a few SonyEricssons, and a couple of no-name $20 ultra-basic own-brand devices. One of the Samsungs might have been a Symbian device, but there were no Androids I could see. No LGs, no HTCs, no BlackBerries.

Basically, if you want a smartphone, it's going to be Symbian-based. (However, there were also a number of dongles on display, and I've seen quite a few people with PCs and modems around the country).

(Oh, and there was also an iPhone 3GS, lurking without fanfare in the middle of the S-Es, at a cost of 1700 Lari ($940 I guess excluding tax). For reference, this is in a city where the average cost of a one-bedroom apartment rental is about $200 a month, so iPhones aren't exactly the aspirational device of students or normal families)

Now for the real kicker.... Beeline only operates a 2G network here. And all its consumer tariffs are prepaid, with no default access to data. You can get WAP or full Internet provisioned - if you're prepared to mess around with APN settings. To be fair, I have seen one person using WAP on a low-end device in the past few days, so it's not a completely voice+SMS centric country.

Another operator, Magti, does have Blackberry devices prominent on its website, although its store nearby also seemed to major on dongles (CDMA-450 EVDO) and even fixed-wireless deskphones. I haven't been to a Geocell store yet, although that has a 3G UMTS network - but its website is still firmly in voice/SMS territory.

One takeaway from this was that as the Beeline dongles only cost 49 Lari - less than $30. So if you have a family, it's a lot cheaper to buy a low-end PC and a dongle, using prepaid data, than it is to get 3 or 4 smartphones for a family - especially given device life-expectancy.

In fact, if you live in a developing country, probably the best bet for a family is PC+dongle (maybe $300-400) and 3x $20 basic phones. OK, so you don't get web access while mobile, but for a relatively immature Internet marketplace, that's really an aspirational nice-to-have for several years yet, for all except a small handful of the Tbilisi elite.

The other takeaway is that Nokias retain popularity outside the more visible North American and Western European markets. Certainly in the other cities I've visited away from the capital, it's still a solidly Nokia-centric country. I suspect that's partly because Symbian smartphones tend to be much better at "offline" uses (eg as cameras) than their peers. Certainly, I couldn't imagine an iPhone or Android being much use without an always-available 3G data plan.


cb said...

Dean, just out of interest, does the 49 Lari cost of the Beeline dongles include any data, and if so, does it have to be used in a set time of say 30 days?

Dean Bubley said...

Data pricing for donglesis here:


Base price doesn't include data - option for prepaid per-MB or rolling monthly unlimited. Different day / night pricing too.

Raj Singh said...

Dean, when I was returning from Nok World on DLR (Dockland Railroads), I spoke to some random Polish developers on the train. I asked what they were seeing in terms of phones in Poland. They said, they still develop for Nokia but all the new kids (or new buyers) are buying Android (and not Nokia).

In addition to trying to grow marketshare in Nokia-weak countries, they need to make sure they can still maintain their stronghold in Nokia-strong countries.

I just got an N8 (and I'm liking it), I think it'll be def. good enough to maintain in Poland etc but let's see if it'll be good enough to acquire in US.