Smartphone War: The Perculiar Case of Thailand

Since the introduction of iPhones and the generation of powerful smartphones that followed, there is no doubt that smartphones are closing gap with desktop PCs and laptops in becoming the primary Internet access device globally. Frost and Sullivan recently forecasted that 54% of all mobile phones in Asia Pacific will be smartphones by 2015. With the low penetration of PCs and laptops in Thailand, this means smartphones will outnumber those by 4-5 times. Despite the lack of nationwide 3G, the coming of this trend is already apparent when all operators launched iPhone 4 5 months ago, and 2-week waiting list still exists for the exceedingly popular device. The steep growth of smartphones in Thailand is no different from elsewhere in the modern world. What is unique, however, is the composition of gainers and losers in the smartphone war.

Globally, Android-based smartphones have surpassed iPhones in various measures of sales and market shares. According to Gartner, Android's global market share at 22.7% has already surpassed Blackberry at 16% whereas iPhone is at 15.7%. For Google, this is particularly impressive, considering that a year ago Android was still trailing iPhone, and Google is the latest entrant to the mobile phone industry.

It must be noted, however, that while Nokia is the reigning market leader at 37.6%, its platform is in great decline. Recently, Nokia's CEO admittedly recognized "a burning platform". Rumor abounds that Nokia may switch to either Android or Microsoft's platform in the coming months.

The unique feature of Android is its open platform, which has been adopted by various manufacturers such as Samsung, LG, Sony Ericsson, Motorola, HTC and etc, who produce and market smartphones under own brands. iPhones, on the other hand, is a close platform and is produced and marketed only under Apple's brand. This openness and combined marketing power of manufacturers may attribute to the recent success of the Android platform.

Why Android is not doing well is a peculiar and perhaps the unique case of Thailand. Published data by Admob suggests that iPhones outnumber Android-based smartphones by 10-15 times in Thailand. Google, on the other hand, is a successful brand. Its search engine commands 98-99% market share in the country, which is probably the highest the world.

One may attribute this to the lack of brand recognition because Android is not being marketed under Google's brand, or the lack of initial supports and localization. Manufacturer were left to their own devices when localizing Android phones for Thailand.

Nevertheless, this may soon change as iPhones only target the upper-end of the market whereas Android's openness allows for a greater range of affordability. Various manufacturers may adopt the platform to produce devices at whatever price range they deem fit. Considering in 4 years, more than half of mobile phones will be smartphones, there is a lot of room for the Android platform to grow.

All of this also depends on the strategic effort Google develops in the region -- whether to boost brand recognition or to treat Thailand as a primary market in supports and localizations. This may come at an opportune moment when various efforts to increase Internet penetration with 3G and National Broadband will take off later this year.