SingTel – BT

An Apple iPhone a day keeps the rivals at bay

THE first bout in the prize fight to land Apple’s iconic iPhone may have gone to SingTel but some market watchers are saying this is a hollow victory since the grey market is rife and the deal is likely to be non-exclusive. What these detractors have failed to see, however, is that the temporary advantage may just be enough to put the red camp in pole position with a new dawn for mobile competition.

This is because, come June 13, the desire to hold on to a treasured phone number will no longer prevent consumers from jumping ship as ‘true mobile number portability’ is set to kick in. When that happens, Singapore’s telecommunications regulator expects churn rates among telcos (or the percentage of users who switch) to be between 5 and 15 per cent, based on statistics from countries that have adopted similar regimes.

Using its most conservative estimate, this means that nearly 300,000 subscribers out of Singapore’s pool of 5.9 million could potentially defect. The Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA) strongly believes such churn is healthy and its new mandate can only benefit consumers as it keeps operators on their toes and forces them to think of new ways to attract customers. Against this backdrop, SingTel’s iPhone deal gives these 300,000 Singaporeans a good reason to initially see red instead of hues of orange and green.

For years, churn in the local mobile sector has been in the low single digits and market share movement between the three players is anything but significant. This is further proof that providing phone services has become somewhat of a lowest common denominator, since operators are largely offering identical services along with a common assortment of handsets.

But given the hype and pent-up demand for the iPhone – a combination iPod, cellphone and wireless Internet device – the outcome could be different this time. In the US, at least, the arrival of the iPhone reinvigorated the stagnant competitive landscape in less than one year.

Exclusive deal

SingTel will be banking on its timed-exclusive deal with Apple to achieve a smaller-scale success locally within three months.

Few handsets in history could boast having the same market-moving impact that Apple’s flagship phone has had.

In less than 12 months, the much-awaited phone – which boasts a large screen where users surf the Web by touching icons and typing in Web addresses on a virtual keypad – grabbed a market share of 27 per cent to be runner’s up in the US market. This is a feat that took competitors years to achieve.

Three months into its launch, Apple announced it had sold one million iPhones in just one market, which translates to nearly 13,000 units a day. This average has since doubled, following the phone’s launch in Europe. And in a single day, SingTel claims it has received ‘hundreds of inquiries’ – an early indicator that local consumer interest is piqued and they are eager to bite. After all, consumers in Singapore have waited more than a year for the iPhone to be officially sold here.

The three-month head start that SingTel is likely to get over rivals also leaves ample time for the company to ramp up the marketing machinery to make its iPhone a must-have for the holidays. In the cut-throat telco world where differentiation is becoming increasingly difficult, any competitive advantage, however short-lived, is quickly pounced upon and seized with an iron grip.

Priming the market

Some analysts say the rampant grey market will take some shine off SingTel’s iPhone win, but I think the reverse is true. The willingness of consumers to pay a premium to buy unlocked units from parallel importers and auction sites merely attests to the allure of Apple’s sexy device, and further primes the market for its official debut. At the end of the day, the gear lust to be among the first to own and experience the cult product is likely to prevail.

Furthermore, no one can accurately predict how big the local grey market is, though the unofficial figure of 10,000 has been used in some media reports. To put things in perspective, this number, even if it is true, represents merely 0.16 per cent of Singapore’s handphone user base. Essentially, the entire market is still up for grabs.

In addition, SingTel’s seasoned marketing gunsight will probably be aimed at the millions of everyday users and not the small pool of gadget-hungry early adopters. In this regard, the official endorsement from Apple is important since product warranty is a major consideration for less tech-savvy users. And judging from Apple’s previous successes with its iPod music players and Macbooks, the task of extending the iPhone’s appeal to the masses shouldn’t be too difficult, especially since latent demand is already present.

With true number portability on the horizon, SingTel has fired the first salvo in its bid to retain supremacy. This leaves StarHub and M1 to play catch-up in their attempt to cut a deal with Apple. But, in a way, the race is already lost; every day they spend negotiating now is an extra day of publicity gained for the red army before the iPhone comes marching in.

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