Fahad al Abri loves to make phone calls on his two-year-old Nokia 6220 mobile. But when it comes to surfing the internet, he chooses to use his new iPhone 3GS. And for e-mails and text messaging, there is his BlackBerry Bold 9000.
"They each do something well," says Mr al Abri, an engineer for Abu Dhabi Company for Onshore Oil Operations. "Sometimes I want to watch YouTube and I do it on my iPhone. I like the BlackBerry keyboard, so I use that to text. And the Nokia phone still works and it has all my address book phone numbers." Mr al Abri, who pays about a total of Dh1,000 (US$272) a month for all three mobiles in separate subscriber plans with Etisalat, is unlikely to give up his love of phones soon. And he is not alone.
In the Emirates there are at least two mobile connections for every resident and mobile phone sales are booming. Despite the economic slowdown, handset sales here rose by 6.8 per cent last year compared with 2008, according to data provided by the technology research firm IDC. Last year, handset makers shipped a total of 174.2 million devices, an increase of 15.1 per cent from 2008, according to IDC.
A closer look at the figures reveal that Nokia is the number one brand when it comes to sales. According to Barti Rajan, the regional mobile handset analyst for IDC, more than 2.4 million Nokia mobiles were sold here. "For every three phones that are sold in the UAE, two are Nokia," Mr Rajan says. "When the mobile market opened up about 15 years ago, Nokia came into this market aggressively and offered a solid battery and good quality devices.
"Word of mouth spread that it was the best phone for this region and they've been the market leader ever since." Globally, Nokia has managed to avoid the worst of the recession, with the Finnish company reporting handset revenues of ?6.66 billion (Dh31.75bn) in the first quarter of this year, an increase of 8 per cent from the same period last year. But while it may be the UAE's favourite mobile device, Nokia's dominance is being threatened by sleeker products from the Canada-based Research In Motion of BlackBerry fame, Apple and Samsung.
In an informal survey of 20 mobile phone retailers along Abu Dhabi's famed Defence Road, shoppers are increasingly switching to BlackBerrys and iPhones. "We sell about 150 Nokia devices a day but BlackBerry came out of nowhere and now we sell about 30 of those every day," says Mohammed al Rasheed, the showroom manager for AMT International, one of the larger mobile retailers on the strip. "It's the BlackBerry Messenger function that everyone really loves. You can send text messages, images, anything to another BlackBerry user without extra charge if you subscribe to the Etisalat service."
Mr Rajan points out that last year was the year of the smartphone for local users, a view backed up by the figures. IDC data shows the smartphone market grew 29.3 per cent between 2008 and last year. "The smartphone handsets literally drove the market," says Mr Rajan. "They're becoming more affordable and they're not for the business people anymore. You can pick up a pretty good model off the shelf for about $200."
BlackBerry has been one of the big winners. Essa al Haddad, the group chief marketing officer for Etisalat, said recently the operator has about 300,000 BlackBerry subscribers. Assuming that du has half as many subscribers, there may be 450,000 BlackBerry users in the UAE, which equates to a 10 per cent penetration rate. The rise in BlackBerry, though, is hardly surprising when you look at the global picture. RIM is now the fourth-largest handset maker in the world with revenues of $14.95bn last year, an increase of 26 per cent compared with 2008. "We have never felt more confident," Jim Balsillie, the co-chief executive of RIM, told Fortune magazine for its latest edition.
Another key player here is Samsung, which has quietly emerged as a major global handset maker. In the UAE, Samsung is in second place behind Nokia with mobile phone sales topping 562,000 handsets. "Despite difficult market conditions, Samsung's mobile business registered 19 per cent market share in the Middle East with an overall growth of 17 per cent," says Sandeep Saihgal, the general manager of mobile devices for Samsung Gulf Electronics. "At the year end we are targeting a 20 per cent growth in the UAE and up to 18 per cent growth in Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman."
Apple will also be hoping take a larger bite of the market in the next 12 months. The iPhone has led innovation in the mobile sector and is a prime driver in Apple's profits. The tech company had revenue of $5.3bn from its smartphone in the first quarter of this year, which was about 39 per cent of its total sales. Closer to home, retailers on Defence Road say that interest in the iPhone is robust, while IDC figures show that an estimated 31,000 handsets were sold in the UAE last year.
One drawback for iPhone, says Mr Rajan, is that the handset is costly and customers here need to sign year-long contracts with the telecoms operators Etisalat and du. But all that could change, he adds. "The iPhone applications are going to be very attractive in the future," Mr Rajan says. "They're going to help make the device very popular in the UAE." firstname.lastname@example.org