Tech-savvy residents in South Korea will finally have access to the iPhone and the BlackBerry Bold after being shut out from the globally popular smartphones. SK Telecom, Korea’s largest mobile carrier, and Canada’s Research in Motion held an ornate ceremony at a posh Seoul hotel on Dec. 16 to mark the launch of the BlackBerry Bold in the country at the end of this month. It will be the first time the BlackBerry service is offered to Koreans by a major local wireless carrier.
To counter SK’s initiative, KT Freetel, Korea’s second-largest mobile carrier known as KTF, says it plans to introduce Apple’s 3G iPhone in April although it has yet to agree with Apple on pricing and other details. The rush to introduce the iPhone underscores the smartphone race underway among Korean operators trying to increase revenues in a market with a mobile subscription rate of well over 90%.
The use of the iPhone and other foreign phones has been discouraged by Korea’s regulatory requirements too. To help smaller companies develop Internet-related applications at lower costs, the Seoul government in 2005 made it mandatory for all handset makers and content providers to use a software standard for Internet access, called WIPI, or Wireless Internet Platform for Interoperability, in Korea. The Korean Communications Commission announced last week that the rule, which meant extra cost for foreign makers because of the need to modify their phones, will be abolished from April 1.
An exception to that requirement was made earlier this year for business users, paving the way for the BlackBerry Bold’s debut before April. SK says the phone will be offered to all consumers if there’s demand for non-business use. Industry watchers notes KTF, which has a 31.5% market share in Korea, has been desperately trying to offer differentiated services to narrow its gap with SK, with more than 50% share, and the iPhone could be one option.
Some analysts say, however, the iPhone probably won’t do the trick. Nokia is virtually non-existent in Korea where consumers are more attracted to phones made by local companies Samsung Electronics and LG Electronics. The two Korean electronic powerhouses each roll out scores of sleek multimedia handsets and smartphones featuring leading-edge technologies every year. The Big Two together control nearly 80% of the Korean handset market.