On December 10 of last year Korean government regulators decided to lift the requirement, and on April 1 it may be possible to get handsets in Korea that are available in other countries already but do not support WIPI. The major model that everyone keeps buzzing about is Apple's iPhone. But what is Apple's reaction to this Are they stockpiling iPhones to ship them over to Korea this month And what are other major handset manufacturers doing
Despite the WIPI regulations, there are already WIPI-free handsets in the country. There are several smart phone models currently in the market, but they are only available for business users, a market segment that the government allowed to be exempted from the WIPI requirements. A recent example of this is Taiwan's HTC Touch Diamond smart phone, which was launched last month through SK Telecom, the country's biggest mobile-phone operator. HTC also released its Touch Dual handset through SK Telecom last summer. Canada's Research In Motion (RIM) has also sold more than 1,000 of its Blackberry Bold handsets through SK Telecom since its release earlier this year, company officials said. Nokia also dipped into this tiny business smart phone market by debuting its 6210 Navigator handset to SK Telecom and KTF at the end of March.
Some companies are playing it safe, and including WIPI anyway. Sony Ericsson is one of those, launching its latest Xperia X1 model in Korea with WIPI mobile internet support in March, before the WIPI rules are removed. This is Sony's first foray into the Korean market. The phone, which is based on Windows Mobile 6.1, has been localized with several application panels on its home screen for access to local services including the market-leading Daum Internet portal which links to SK Telecom's mail and Web services and to content on a personal computer. Sony Ericsson also plans to offer additional application panels for the phone from a Korean language Web site it will soon launch. So, despite the ability to wait a month and launch the phone without WIPI, Sony is going ahead with business as usual.But Apple's iPhone is not taking the same route. SK Telecom and KTF are both engaged in talks with Apple, although no deals have been reached yet. As of this writing, it seems that deals will not be finalized by April 1, so Korean technophiles will have to wait even longer for the iPhone. And they have been waiting for a long time. Since rumors of the WIPI standard being lifted surfaced in 2008, iPhone enthusiasts called for a December 2008 Christmas release of the iPhone. They were disappointed when government regulators decided to delay lifting the WIPI requirement until April in order to avoid shocking the domestic handset market. Now, they may have to wait even longer. The iPhone is already available in over 70 countries worldwide, so Korean iPhone obsessives are understandably impatient.
However, it remains to be seen whether the lifting of the WIPI requirements will give foreign vendors a license to print money here. Most of the handsets released in Korea, including Touch Diamond, Navigator and Xperia, are more than a year out from their global debut, and it's questionable how much excitement they could create among demanding Korean consumers, who have grown accustomed to being pitched new models every six months.
And many of the handsets sold here will be missing key capabilities that made them popular elsewhere, due to local regulations and the business interests of local carriers. For instance, Nokia's Navigator will fail to live up to its name here, as the Korean version of the handset will be stripped of its digital mapping capabilities, due to the local laws that ban digital map data to be exported overseas. The Finnish handset maker has refused to establish a separate server in Korea to provide the location-based services. And despite their advanced data capabilities, many of the foreign handsets will come without Wi-Fi ability, as local carriers would rather have users relying on their more expensive wireless Internet services instead.
Although Korean consumers have been hoping that the influx of foreign handsets would increase their choice in affordable phones, the plummet of the Korean won makes this no sure thing as well, as operators are now forced to spend more money in securing the handset supplies. So while the WIPI standard is lifting this month, it doesn't seem like it is creating a stampede of foreign handset manufacturers pressing at the borders of the Korean market hoping to get in and crush all competition. It seems that the diversification of the market will be more gradual. One can imagine that as companies release new models of phones, they will consider the Korean market as one more market to enter, but not necessarily the most important.