Phone makers tweak for Asian markets

Some manufacturers choose to focus on localized apps while others on hardware customizations, in effort to capture region's mobile market.
Written by Victoria Ho, Contributor on

To capture the Asian mobile industry, some phone makers are targeting the developing markets with localized apps, while others tout hardware customizations.

Samsung is one manufacturer that appears to have focused on customized tweaks for its Asian handsets. Winston Goh, the vendor's Asia product marketing manager for mobile phones, told ZDNet Asia in an interview there are "subtle" differences in phones developed for the region, compared to those for Western markets.

Goh said phones with a "bike mode" safety feature will be marketed to countries where most people are dependent on motorcycles or scooters for transport. The function, to be released on some models in the first quarter of 2010, will route all incoming calls to voicemail, allowing only preselected numbers to get through. This prevents riders from being unnecessarily distracted, he explained.

He added that the lack of reliable power sources in rural parts of Asia also led to new features such as solar charging and built-in torch lights, in some models that are marketed to these regions.

Another feature that emerged from the region's "specific need" for entertainment addresses the ability to play FM radio signals without a headset plugged in, which is a requirement on most phone models today because the headset acts as an antenna. Goh said Samsung currently offers a model that incorporates a stronger internal antenna to allow the radio to be played without headsets, and the company plans to include this component in more handset models next year.

Dust-resistance is another feature designed specifically for Asia, Goh said, adding that Samsung carries a dust-resistant phone and will also expand this offering next year.

Apps for developing markets
Finnish phone giant Nokia, on the other hand, has chosen to focus on localized apps in a bid to capture the region.

A spokesperson said in an e-mail interview there are localized apps on Nokia's mobile apps marketplace, Ovi Store, such as a Muslim prayer time app and location-based store finders for GPS-enabled devices.

She added that the phone maker has also been active in its Life Tools range of services catering to social aspects, including agriculture and education in rural areas. The focus on the low-end segment has helped Nokia strengthen its foothold in developing markets such as India.

Offered together with Life Tools is a micropayment scheme, announced in August this year, that is targeted at rural users with little access to banking facilities, according to reports.

The spokesperson noted that the lack of access to PCs in some markets also allows Nokia to offer a free e-mail service, called Ovi Mail. "This is cheaper than a PC and caters to people in developing countries," she said.

High-end Asia
While some device makers focus on developing markets, two phone manufacturers have set their sights on Asia's power users.

A spokesperson from HTC said smartphones are "hot property in Asia, especially in Singapore", where figures show adoption rates are "far beyond average world statistics". Citing figures from IDC, he noted that 33 percent of Singapore mobile users own "Web and media-enabled mobile phones", compared to a global average of 13 percent.

"Top-selling mobile phones in Singapore mostly belong to the full touch-screen, multimedia-rich types with Internet and direct e-mail access", he said in an e-mail.

Bo Hwan Choi, LG Electronics' Asia vice president and head of mobile communications marketing, said Asian users tend to use mobile messaging services more than their Western counterparts.

To that end, Choi said the Korean manufacturer intends to make messaging modes such as e-mail, SMS and instant messaging, more "readily available" to lower-end devices as well. He added that social networking is also fast picking up among users in the region.

"The young generation tends to prefer to leave their messages on Facebook rather than send them via SMS," he said.

To address this demand, he noted that LG has introduced a phone model that combines users' traditional mobile phonebook with their social networking list of contacts. Users can leave messages on friends' Facebook walls without needing to first log in, he explained.

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