Thursday, November 29, 2007

Apple's iPhone a tougher sell in Europe?

Apple's learning fairly quickly that Europe is a very different place, especially when it comes to mobile phones.

The iPhone went on sale Wednesday through wireless carrier Orange in France, marking the third European country to carry the phone within its borders. The launch also marked the debut of the third pricing strategy for the iPhone in the three countries: France, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

It appears that at least for a while, the iPhone is going to move more slowly for Apple in Europe. Orange said hopes to sell 100,000 iPhones by the end of 2007, and 400,000 to 500,000 in total by the end of next year, according to several reports Tuesday. Apple wants to sell 10 million iPhones next year in total, after expanding to Asia some time in 2008.

Was Apple blasé about the challenges it faces in Europe? The device's debut in one of the most hotly contested mobile phone markets in the world has been a little chaotic, with last-minute changes to pricing plans that don't appear to have been part of the plan.

Orange, the "exclusive" carrier of the iPhone in France, offers three payment plans. You can purchase an iPhone for 399 euros ($592.78) and sign up for one of the special "Orange for iPhone" plans, which range in price from 49 euros a month to 119 euros a month depending on usage. You can buy an iPhone for 549 euros if you want to use one of Orange's other rate plans. Or, you can buy an iPhone for 649 euros ($964.20) with no plan.

The only company that can sell you an iPhone in France is Orange (Apple doesn't have any stores in France) but it sure as heck isn't going to be the exclusive carrier. French law requires that carriers offer their customers the option of an unlocked phone. That will cost you 100 euros today, but if you're willing to wait six months, you can have it unlocked for free.

So French shoppers who want an unlocked iPhone today will pay the equivalent of $1,112,77, which is actually a significant bargain over what their German neighbors are being asked to pay for a key to other networks. After a legal challenge from rival Vodafone forced its hand, T-Mobile agreed to offer an unlocked iPhone in Germany for the equivalent of $1,478 (at last week's exchange rate).

At least in U.K., Apple's one-phone, one-carrier strategy is still in place. O2 and Apple have yet to release any sales figures, although O2 said it was its "fastest-selling" launch. No matter what, however, any expectations for lines and hoopla similar to what happened stateside on iPhone Day did not materialize in Blighty.

Simply put, Europe is different. Entering the European mobile phone market from the United States is like getting called up to the majors after just a few months in the minors.

One of the many things I've heard from U.S. iPhone owners is that many of them were relatively new to smartphones, especially the idea of getting e-mail and anything more than a real basic stripped-down Web page on their phones. They bought the iPhone because of its user interface, not because it was a data phone, although they quickly grasped what they had at their disposal.

And they didn't care that they'd be locked to AT&T for two years, because two-year wireless contracts are the norm in this country. Maybe that will change in upcoming years following Verizon's announcement earlier this week that it will open up its network, but it will take a long time before all of us are using our phones that way.

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