I’m by no means an expert on Thailand’s mobile industry but I do spend quite a bit of time here. Since 2000, we’ve spend about 14 months in Thailandâ€”mostly living in Bangkok but also in smaller provincial areas like Krabi and Phuket. Much of that time has been spent observing ICT and mobile use as well as local trends in brands, content and services. Technology has such a large role here and with improving infrastructure, standard of living and technology in generalâ€”I still feel this is one of the most interesting places on the planet to observe mobile and technology use in day to day life.
The population of Thailand is 61 million people with an approximately 69% rural population (about 10 million in Bangkok,) one national language (Thai) and three main ethnic groupsâ€”Thai, ethnic Malay and ethnic Chinese. Mobile penetration in Thailand is expected to reach 70% by 2007 although i’m curious how accurate those numbers are considering the high incidence of multiple handset and multiple SIM ownership. The current blended ARPU is approximately $10 pcm but is expected to fall over the coming years with a decline in voice revenue counterbalanced by an expected increase in data revenues. Current operators in Thailand include (in order of importance)
There are reports that Telekom Malaysia (also a major player in Bangladesh) may be interested in entering the Thai market and other players may materialize although a 49% foreign ownership limit in the telcom sector may keep too much external competition from entering the market.
Nokia is by far the dominant brand here, followed probably by Motorola (ironically, according to Dr. Sadie Plant in “On the Mobile” the word for mobile in Thailand is moto.) This has been pretty steady over the past 5 years although there have been some blips along the way. Four and a half years ago, Nokia was clearly dominant in the shops but Sony Ericsson was the most lustworthy brand and clearly positioned as the upper-end product. Two years later, we found all sorts of newcomers in the market: Innostream, Panasonic, Bird, Sagem as well as tons of PDAs. As a matter of fact, the biggest visible change that year was the large number of PDAs, not only in the shops but in people’s hands. Laptop use also went up considerably that year so it seemed like a transitional period with consumers trying to decide where their loyalties lay and what device would make the most sense. PDA with phone and wifi? Laptop with IM and Skype? Higher end phone? (And there wasn’t even lots of wi-fi back then. Next door in Malaysia where you could already get decent monthly wi-fi for about $30, there were even more PDAs on the streets.)
A year and a half later (summer 2005) it had all changed again. Samsung had entered the market big time, sponsoring all sorts of venues across town and becoming the major sponsor for MBKâ€”the ubiquitous middle-class-pop-culture mall in downtown Bangkok. This year however, Nokia is clearly back on top and spending tons of money to stay that way. Almost any local event you can think of has a Nokia logo on it somewhere. They are the main sponsor of one of the luxury movie theatres that just opened and there are 4 new Nokia stores within blocks of each other at Siam Square. Two of these are Nokia “N Series Experience Studios” which run demos and allow consumers to play around with the multimedia features of the devices. And despite the recent launch of the 990i, and several new Sony stores in town (even a Sony Ericsson service centre) Sony Ericsson seems to have all but disappeared. The devices are there but there’s no advertising, no TV advertsâ€”especially compared to the dueling Motorola, Samsung and Nokia N Series (Gary Oldman “all the world’s a stage”) commercials that play constantly on UBC and on the subway.
As for what’s in people’s pockets…(on their belts, around their necks…) It’s mostly Nokia, but not necessarily the newer models. The most popular model by far seems to be the 6680â€”especially with students and young professionals. Then the 6630, 6670, 6710 (in other wordsâ€”decent price, decent camera, MMC, browser, O/S) and there are quite a few lower end “L’Amour”s, N70s and N72 floating around as well.
I also still see many sub $100 models of course, and there certainly are piles of these entry level phones in the shops as well. The 1110 and 1600 are retailing at about $50 and $80 respectively with the tag line “Life’s little pleasures.” and last I checked there are about 11 Nokias in the sub $100 category. There are also lots of second-hand models available at 30-50% off retail (50% is mostly much older phones like the NGage, 7600, 3660, or 7710 so I assume some people are moving up from an entry level phone to a used mid-range ($150-$200) model as well. And PDAs are still highly visibleâ€”mostly carried by businesspeople, students and the creative crowd.
I think this is why Nokia’s still on top. They have lots of choice, lots of price ranges, they market the lower end models as much as they do the higher end ones (simple but nice packaging, brochures, comparison guidesâ€”even if you’re only about to spend $50,) then when you can afford to upgrade, there’s a Nokia for almost every price bracket from $80 to $1000.
Of course, if you feel like spending way more than that, you can also walk into the Paragon Mall and shop at the very shiny new Vertu store.
How to Buy a Phone
There are almost no operator-specific handsets here so the process usually goes like this.
Step 1: Go Shopping
MBK Mall at Siam Square in Bangkok has hundreds of phone vendors. There are tens of thousands of others in small neighbourhoods and towns across the country. Opening a shop seems to be very easy and there are lots of opportunities for very innovative micro-commerce locations in the malls (some vendors have a chair, a display case, 3 prefab walls and a roll-down garage door type enclosure to lock up at night. It’s cheap, practical, and you decorate it with posters to stand out from the next guy.)
Or you can try out some models at the fancier Nokia, Motorola, Samsung or Sony Ericsson stores in the higher end malls. So basically, you shop around. The concept of consumers not knowing what phone they have in their pocket is completely impossible here as far as i’m concerned. Even tiny shops have glossy, spiral bound, pop-up Nokia “selling guides” outlining every model, the specifications; and all colour coded based on the lifestyle aspect of the device (“are you looking for a business or fashion phone?”) There is also a huge “2006-2007 Nokia Buyers Guide” out in bookstores at the moment. 250 glossy pages outlining every Nokia model available as well as software reviews, mini-user guides, a very handy comparison chart and even a theme-building tutorial!
Step 2: SIM/Airtime Shopping
Once you have a phone, you shop around for a plan and a number. The numbers are displayed at vendor booths (some vendors only sell numbers/SIMs and airtime, others carry handsets as well) and lucky numbers are very important. I don’t know the technicalities of what makes a ‘good number’ but this can be quite the topic of debate at some booths (and totally confusing for newcomers who pick a number only to be stared at in horror and told it’s a “bad number.”)
With your SIM usually comes a 50-100 baht ($2-$3) airtime credit to get you started. There’s also a lot of competition for pre-pay plans with colourful advertising, mascots and TV adverts devoted to switching people from one plan to another. SIMs are even bundled with other services like a Movie SIM promo I recently ran into that gives you a SIM, airtime, free calls from your mobile if you want to buy movie tickets as well as other related discounts. It’s no wonder then that the current pre-pay to post-pay ratio is still a whopping 6:1. I’ve also seen tons of people with two phones, both of them in use (often one in each hand but maybe one just for for texting and the other for talking, taking photos etc.
I would also assume that, due to the income level of many Thai’s there are still a large number of consumers who prefer to buy airtime ‘just-in-time’ rather than sign up for a plan. There are also lots of efficient top-up schemes that allow consumers to buy airtime from friends or street-side vendors. (Orange had a great promo last year with hundreds of vendors standing at skytrain or mall entrances with a big orange “mobile top-up” apron around their necks ready to sell you credits.) Driving into town to pay an invoice is also likely to be problematic for rural consumers. Mind youâ€”there is such an emphasis on micro-commerce here, it wouldn’t surprise me if they set up franchisee bill-pay centres in smaller towns.
ICTs and Knowledge
With a minimum wage of just Bt. 130/$4 per day (in 2000) there are obviously many people in Thailand who cannot afford a home computer but it’s also impossible to describe how much computer use has grown in just a few years. Figures from 2005 showed home computer ownership levels at 2.78/100 inhabitants and a Unesco report that year also stated:
“Most schools in Thailand do not have adequate ICT facilities and lack computers. There are currently 32,741 schools in Thailand that provide education for 8,830,000 students. Approximately 451 schools do not have electricity and 16,000 schools do not have telephone lines. The total number of computers in schools is around 120,739.” (UNESCO: Mobile Learning for Expanding Educational Opportunities)
What’s clear to me from these numbers is that mobiles have the potential to play a large part in ICT based educational opportunities but I’m not so sure that the more traditional mobile handset will be the device of choice. Rather, the ability to simply ‘be mobile‘ while learning through a PDA or laptop may provide more value than handsetsâ€”especially when you compare the economics of a mid-range handset (with MMC, browser etc.) to a PDA or laptop purchase.
We first saw a noticeable rise in laptop use (and availability) in summer 2005 but as of this year, laptops are everywhere. Even mall vendors with tiny booths selling shoes, jewelry, or mobile services often have one and it’s not uncommon to see business people or groups students having lunch at a neighbourhood mall or in the park (yes there are parks in Bangkok while working on a laptop. This is a huge change andâ€”while there has always been very high computer use in internet cafesâ€”the ability to buy a decent laptop or high end PDA for about $600 along with growing wi-fi hotspots (about 4000 Thailand wide last I checked) are creating real value for these devices as multi-purpose investment for the whole family. And it often really seems to be the whole family. It has never been unusual here to see young and old, male and female alike running computer and mobile shops (or my favouriteâ€”elderly ladies sitting behind a mall booth avidly playing Game Boy This trend doesn’t seem to be going away and what it seems to mean for mobile is that these devices are likely being used much more fully than they often are back home; where many adults don’t know how to change their battery let alone take the device apart to replace a worn keypad or install new software.
As well, as in many Asian nations, there is a strong focus on knowledge (often through ICTs) as a way to improve your life and career prospects. The new Paragon mall downtown includes a whole “Edutainment” floor, mostly devoted to helping children compete socially and professionally in life. They offer ballet lessons, piano, art, phys-ed for toddlers, kids cooking classes, language classes (not just English but Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, French etc.) computer classes (3D, animation, design, movie making) maths and science tutoring and in many of these courses, there is an ICT related component. Obviously some of these services are only affordable to upper or middle-class consumers but even in smaller neighbourhood malls or towns, you usually find a choice of lower priced alternatives.
Two years ago, the Thai government also set up TK Park in downtown Bangkok. Billed as the Thailand Knowledge Park, it includes a public library with free internet and educational game access, a larger internet area complete with Mac, PC and Linux workstations (some with graphics and multimedia software,) a computer-book library (lovely idea!) and a technology museum of sorts supported by Microsoft, Oracle, Acer etc. featuring tablet PCs, Linux demos and learning sessions on the history of computers. There is also a digital design school as well as conference and meeting space. Much of this is free and wi-fi is also available. TK Park has recently tripled in size to accommodate the huge demand and when we spent time there last year, it was quite clear that much of the usage was coming from young, less advantaged inner-city families who would take an hour away from their small businesses (food carts, streetside vendors etc.) to bring their kids into the fun, air conditioned space to read a book, see a puppet show or play some educational games online. The new TK is an absolutely gorgeous space with some great additions like IT Camps (blogging, GarageBand, Picasa, digital moviemaking) so I hope it will stay free.
Finally, government programs have affected the open source movement and inadvertentlyâ€”overall computer costs and even the adoption of Microsoft software.
To increase computer ownership, MICT launched the Computer ICT Programme in the first quarter of 2003 offering citizens low-cost computers sold with a preinstalled Linux and OpenOffice package supplied by NECTEC. The computer, including a regular monitor, was sold at US$250. Generic and brand-name computer vendors responded by slashing their prices to compete with the budget computer.
The programme also gave a boost to the open source movement, as the bundling of the budget computer with open source software has helped to create mass demand for Linux in place of the more expensive proprietary software. In a later phase of the programme, Microsoft decided to join in by offering a special version of the Thai-language Windows XP and Office XP package at a very low price (US$35). (more)
There has always been a strong supply of games, ringtones and wallpapers here with value added services now generating over $150 million a year (2005.) Print advertising is very popular here so most operators or independent content providers supply stacks of colourful glossy brochures and posters featuring the latest download offerings for display at small shops. Still, a drop in revenue sharing has caused some stress in the industry with operators announcing they would now split revenues 50:50 instead of the existing 65% share for content creators.
I’ve also always wondered what will happen here if Flash Lite becomes commonly available on handsets here. Great design seems to be everywhere and I can honestly say that some of the best design in the world is coming out of Thailand lately. Everything from illustration to photography, film, animation, interior design/furniture, and industrial design (novelty products, stationary, accessories.) And unlike certain Asian markets, the styles, colour choices and products are quite varied and very approachable internationally while still remaining very Thai. I can only imagine the great mobile games and content that could be produced in this country if a more economical mobile authoring platform were available. As it stands, there are a handful of mobile game companies here releasing regional and local titles for J2ME but they have to compete with everyone else and I’m sure are under the same pressure as folks back home to make the stuff operators think will sell.
I know very little about mobile web penetration here but do have some incidental knowledge from SIM purchases over the years. Configuring your GPRS settings is way easier here than back home. The operator web sites typically have a clearly marked ‘GPRS settings’ page or you can receive the settings by SMS. I guess with all the SIM swapping it just has to be easy or no-one will use it. So this removes one of the common barriers but there is still the issue of cost and that’s where i’m not sure if Thailand has had an advantage or not. However with all the PDA and wi-fi use, mobile internet usage must be growing as wellâ€”though maybe not as much on handsets as on hybrid devices.
Broadband availability has also risen dramatically since 2005 and prices have finally dropped to something reasonable. There are lots of wi-fi hotspots around town including some free ones in high traffic neighbourhoods where youth and business people tend to spend lots of time. So once again, this results in lots of people using PDAs and laptops in public places for work and play.
Culture (and Sanuk)
No mobile discussion would be complete without talk of culture. Thais like to have fun, but it goes a bit beyond the word fun as English speakers use it. It’s called ‘sanuk.’
The word “sanuk” means to have a good time, to enjoy oneself and to derive pleasure and joy from something…It is almost a rule of living for Thai people that whatever they do have to be “sanuk”. The concept of “sanuk” goes beyond the having of a good laugh or a good time at a dance or a performance. (more)
This may seem trivial or stereotypical but spend a few days in Thailand and it becomes obvious how sanuk affects every day life. And this is what I love about technology and mobile here. It’s fun. And if it’s not, it doesn’t seem to last very long (or maybe someone finds a way to make it fun.) So this leads to all sorts of personalization, interesting SIM card promos, music downloads and promotional displays in malls complete with song, dance, props, mascots, contests…it never seems to end. And yet for all this fun, the mobile culture is still very respectful. People frequently cover their mouths while talking on the phone in public or use an earbud headset holding the mic to their mouth. Most people remember to turn off their phones in movie theatres and if they don’t, hilarious adverts remind them to do so. But life is getting busier, things are costing more and i’m assuming debts are rising. People don’t always stop when the national anthem plays at 6pm each night like they used to and receiving calls on two handsets probably stops being ‘sanuk’ every once in a while. Like many emerging markets, Thailand is growing at an amazing pace and it’s hard to tell how things will change here in the coming years.
I ran into a collection of SMS books last week. Small sayings, jokes and love or friendship poems to send your friends. All under 156 characters. Here are some of my favourites.
Dare to love. Dare to follow dreams Dare to challenge yourself. And dare to be a looser, too
Am I a friend of yours? If so, please send me 500 Baht!
I don’t know what magic power of this mobile phone forces me to send SMS.
I hear you have a miracle comb which makes your hair neat and beautiful. Can I use it to comb my messy life?
Miss you so much. I don’t know where you are now. Please call me back. It’s your creditor.