Smartphone parochialism: How operator policies prevent or promote platform adoption

When comparing smartphone platforms it’s tempting to consider the global market as unified and commonly addressable. However, when you look at individual countries some strange patterns of behavior emerge:

  • Indonesia, the fourth most populous country in the world (230 million people) loves Nokia’s Communicator. It’s the ultimate mobile status symbol.
  • Japan had one of the largest installed bases of Symbian phones. The version running in Japan is not compatible with versions elsewhere. Famous for its Galapagos mobile culture, the iPhone is changing what the Japanese consider the basis of phone performance.
  • The iPhone just became Korea’s favorite smartphone even though hegemonic Samsung and LG are doing a roaring trade selling Android phones elsewhere.
  • The US has four incompatible 3G network technologies in widespread use. No widely distributed smartphone phone works with any two. Blackberry ruled supreme until AT&T started promoting the iPhone and Verizon started promoting Android.
  • Latin America loves BlackBerry. BBM is wildly popular as an SMS alternative.
  • Saudi Arabia loves BlackBerry. When face-to-face conversations are taboo, the BlackBerry is a social lubricant.
  • Australia loves the iPhone. Android is almost non-existent.
  • Italy has more smartphones per capita than the US. The majority are made by Nokia.
  • China uses two incompatible 3G technologies. The most popular (TDSCDMA) is not available anywhere else. WiFi was illegal in phones until this year.
  • Germany has a disproportionally large installed base of Windows Mobile
  • There are no Blackberries in Finland.

Although some of these idiosyncrasies may be cultural (like the Indonesian penchant for large devices) most of them are due to operator decisions. In some cases operators choose incompatible network technologies to protect from competition. In others they promote local vendors or price certain products out of reach.

Sometimes big bangs take place and demand explodes for “banned” technologies or vendors. However, it’s just as easy to see how the pendulum can swing against free market choice.

Ultimately users and device vendors are at the mercy of operator decisions. In the long term operator control over platforms might diminish but it will take many years.