Gadget lovers will be gleefully peeling away the shrink-wrap and unboxing the hottest new toy of the year tomorrow, as the new Apple iPhone 3G hits stores across the world. And, while the touch-screen wonder will not be officially released in the UAE, the device will soon make its way into local pockets and handbags. Informal importers and resellers, who currently offer a hacked version of the original iPhone for sale in most major malls, say they will stock the new version within weeks. Meanwhile, Apple's competitors are racing to get their own iPhone clones to the market, meaning that 2008 will be a good year for new electronic toys.
Apple has worked hard to limit the hacking and export of iPhones to unauthorised markets. The phones come locked to their host network, require activation with a credit card, and new software updates cripple those that have been unlocked. But the rapid spread of the iPhone across the world underlines the incredible global appeal of the device and the difficulty of keeping it contained within a select group of markets.
It is not officially available in China but that has done little to tame demand - or supply. China Mobile has more than half a million iPhones active on its network, making it one of the most popular smartphones on the market, despite the lack of a legal distribution network. And, although Etisalat and Du will not reveal numbers, a visit to any upmarket cafe or a quick scan of the room at any business event shows that it is becoming the gadget of choice for smartphone users here.
Major electronics retailers now sell iPhone accessories - specially designed headphones, cases and covers - in acknowledgement of the demand that its presence here has generated. Analysts have calculated that at least a million iPhones - almost 20 per cent of all units sold globally - have been hacked and exported to markets where Apple has yet to offer the phone. As anyone who has spent time in an emerging economy knows, in-demand goods will find their way to the market, regardless of efforts to hold them back. When entertainment companies choose not to release new films and music in markets of marginal importance, piracy flourishes. In countries that apply exorbitant import duties to clothing, cottage industries of bourgeois smuggling emerge, as society ladies return from trips to Milan with suitcases stuffed with Prada and Versace intended for resale to friends and family.
But something else is at work in the case of the iPhone. Plenty of other high-end smartphones are available in China - and the UAE - at prices lower than the Apple product. But none of them is anywhere near as good, with the difference in quality so great that they can barely be considered in the same market segment. Only the BlackBerry, which has defined and dominated a tight market niche for a corporate email phone, has held out against the Apple onslaught.
What once passed for a "music phone" - Nokia's XpressMusic range, or Sony Ericsson's Walkman-branded devices - is Stone-Age in comparison to the iPhone's flawlessly integrated iPod Touch music player. The same goes for web browsing, email and photos. Businesses that have been making mobiles for more than a decade have been left in the dark by Apple's product, which has changed the game as significantly as the iPod did for music players and the iTunes Music Store did for digital music retailing.
Faced by Apple's clearly superior product, companies such as Nokia, Sony Ericsson and Samsung are doing what others have done when trying to snatch back a market redefined by Apple: trying hard to make a good copy. Everywhere you look in the smartphone market today, the story is the same: Company X announces its "iPhone killer". They all feature a large rectangular touch screen covering the entire face of the phone; they are all black and they all look almost as cool as the original.
The most interesting of them all is the Nüvifone, the first mobile to be made by Garmin, a manufacturer of satellite navigation devices. Garmin has proved itself capable of making slick, polished touch-screen navigation systems for use in cars, and its entry to the mobile market has attracted plenty of attention. Garmin has billed the Nüvifone as a hybrid mobile/navigation device, which will work just like a stand-alone navigation system when in the car or out and about, while also doubling as a touch-screen mobile phone.
Its support for advanced location-based applications such as Google's Local Search, which finds businesses and services close to your location, seems promising. Photos taken with the Nüvifone's camera have location information embedded in the image; if you send the picture to another Nüvifone user, that phone can guide its owner to the same location. The Nüvifone is likely to be the best navigation-enabled phone on the market, given Garmin's core expertise, but it remains to be seen whether the company can handle the rest: web-browser, music player, contact manager. It has taken decades for other companies to get there and Garmin is going it alone, building its own operating system rather than licensing one from established providers.
Sony Ericsson's Xperia looks promising, combining a large touch-screen with a slide-out QWERTY keyboard. Using its stylus, you can write directly on the screen, with handwriting recognition converting the words to text - a feature unavailable on the iPhone. Xperia's tiled interface takes its cue from the iPhone and the multicoloured LED lights on all four corners of the phone can be customised to provide alerts and notifications, which will please fans of blinking, UFO-like gadgets everywhere.
Samsung, which has made strong gains in the mobile market in recent years, has released the Instinct, a touch-screen iPhone impersonator that is getting good reviews in the US. It includes a full navigation service powered by Telenav, which produces the excellent navigation software found on BlackBerry devices. It also has a well integrated voice command system, letting you dial contacts, answer calls and open text messages hands-free. The iPhone is yet to offer such a service.
The most mysterious and least-publicised of the would-be iPhone killers is the effort from Nokia, popularly known as the Tube. Low-quality leaked images of the Tube show a device that looks remarkably similar to the iPhone, with a black touch-screen covering the phone's face. Little is known about its capabilities but, in mid-June, a German mobile phone store included an image of it among many other Nokia devices in a print advertisement. It was branded as the Nokia ExpressMusic 5800, suggesting that the device may end up being marketed as a music-focused phone.
Although few details about the Tube have been released, no one is doubting Nokia's ability to sell millions of them; the company currently sells a little less than half of all the phones in the world. Its ability to push a device to the mass market was highlighted by Tom Libretto, the vice president of Forum Nokia, the company's support programme for mobile application developers. When Mr Libretto was hyping the device at a Silicon Valley conference in April, a member of the audience asked if he thought Nokia could match Apple's target of selling five to six million iPhones in its first year.
"We've done that volume since we had dinner on Friday," Mr Libretto replied. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org