Kevin Hackett takes a look at the mobile phone for the sophisticated, discerning customer.
Why a Vertu mobile phone is a butler in your pocket
In the rarefied world of supremely luxurious goods, one relatively new company has doggedly stuck to its principles and struck a chord with a discerning marketplace that has come to view the mobile phone as more than simply a device for speaking, messaging or surfing the world wide web. For Vertu, the mobile phone is a device that should be as desirable as a handmade Swiss timepiece or a Chanel handbag; something one should aspire to possessing in a sea of Apple white and Samsung black sameness.
The British company's latest handset, the TI, is indeed a thing of beauty. It is neither the thinnest mobile phone nor the lightest. In fact, the TI is decidedly weighty, and has substantial dimensions that are quite at odds with the trend elsewhere for making everything more slender and fragile. Comparing the TI with practically any other new handset is as futile as judging a Volkswagen Polo with a Bentley Mulsanne - the thing positively reeks of handcrafted engineering brilliance.
Vertu was founded in 1998 as a division of the mobile phone giant Nokia, with the notion that, if you don't mind spending hundreds of thousands of dirhams on a watch, why not on a telephone? And, against the odds and the naysayers, that gamble paid off. A Vertu isn't for everyone, obviously, but therein lies the secret of the company's success. Despite it lagging behind the established players in the mobile phone market with its outdated technologies, owners have seen past that and embraced what is known the world over as one of the most luxurious status symbols there is. And now modern technology has finally found its way inside these handcrafted handsets, with the TI.
Steve Amstutz, Vertu's Global Commercial Director, is on a flying visit to the UAE and I have half an hour with him in Vertu's rather splendid VIP area in the upper echelons of Dubai Mall. Amstutz has been with the company since the end of 2009, coming came from what he perceives as Vertu's only real rival, TAG Heuer. There, he helmed the worldwide distribution and marketing strategy for that brand's own mobile communications devices for two years. In the ten years before joining TAG Heuer, he was heavily involved with Swatch Group. Therefore, it's fair to say he knows a thing or two about luxury goods, and he guides me through a quick history of Vertu before introducing me to the TI.
"It all started in the late 1990s," he says, "with an idea that was brought to the attention of Nokia's head of design - the man responsible for the look and feel of all those millions of phones that were in use at the time. The thinking was, 'why not create an exceptional phone for exceptional people?' and, with the same thought process that men, in particular, are very much into sports cars and fine watches. In 2002, the company launched its Signature phone, and that is still in our portfolio today. It's an iconic product."
He goes on to say that, when Vertu was just getting into its stride, Nokia had a 40 per cent share in the mobile phone market, so the technology inside Vertu's handsets was certainly contemporary. "But then BlackBerry came along -initially only in the US and Canada - and that started a massive change in the way people used their mobiles."
Slowly but surely, however, the concept behind Vertu was embraced by markets such as the US, Europe, the Middle East and then China. When Southeast Asia and the Pacific Rim all came on board, it was going very well for Vertu.
"Then the iPhone came to market," he says, "and nobody really saw that coming, not even Nokia's directors. The iPhone changed the market overnight, with its touch screen. Vertu had to reinvent itself from voice-centric devices into the new world of smartphones.
"And we did deliver our first smartphone in 2010, with a full 'qwerty' keypad, which was, for us, a steep learning curve due to the incredible complexities of their technologies ."
A year later, Vertu launched its first touch screen smartphone, the Constellation T.
"Even in the first part of this year, 58 per cent of Vertu's sales were for that model, the rest being the voice-centric models. But our technology, even in our smartphones, had started to lag behind and we needed to make a big change," Amstutz admits.
"This change was activated by the company changing ownership. In 2012, Nokia sold Vertu to a private equity firm, EQT, the largest of its kind in northern Europe. And what this brought to Vertu was total freedom when it came to the technology we used inside our handsets."
The technology that Vertu embraced last year was Android, which has a 69 per cent market share when it comes to the platform used by smartphones worldwide. "So we've gone from Symbian technology, which had less than five per cent market share, to being in the majority, and that is bringing us huge opportunities when it comes to offering our customers the widest possible choice of applications."
Amstutz claims that Vertu enjoys a 95 per cent share of the luxury mobile handset market, so which brands does he see as being in the remaining five per cent?
"TAG Heuer has its fourth handset now, and they very much believe in the power of design and engineering. There's Dior, too, which has launched two phones, and Versace has also made an attempt. Then there's the Swiss company Celsius, who mix watchmaking technology into the phone, even including a tourbillon. This is not the way we do things. Technology, services, design and materials - Vertu owns the land."
He admits that Vertu could be perceived as appealing to a customer base that has "more ostentatious tastes", but claims that understated design is now part of the company's future. And that is perfectly encapsulated with the TI. "It's not show-off. It's just a beautiful design that has been handcrafted from the finest materials, and this is where we see growth."
The Signature Model's design has changed little in the past ten years, and there's nothing wrong with that. It's a beautiful thing to look and handle. Based around a titanium case that has been used for its strength, elegance and low weight, the TI also uses leather accents, has the largest sapphire crystal screen ever engineered and lots of masculine-looking exposed watch screws. "The sapphire crystal renders the screen virtually scratch proof and it's tested to be four times stronger than other smart phones in terms of impact resistance," says Amstutz. "The titanium case is around five times stronger than other smartphones, deforming less than 1mm when a 500Nm force is applied."
The TI is powered by the Android 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich" operating system, and is fitted with a 1.7 GHz processor, resulting in an intuitive and "highly reactive user experience". Other features include an eight megapixel rear camera with auto focus and twin LED flash, a 1.3MP front facing Skype compliant camera, 64GB of internal memory and secure near field communication technology.
Another example of Vertu's continued commitment to superior craftsmanship and engineering is, says Amstutz, the new handset's audio ability. Its 11x15mm rectangular drivers are acoustically integrated into the "chassis" to maximise frequency response and level. The result is, he assures me, an "unrivalled symphonic sound from the phone's own stereo speakers. They're Bang & Olufsen certified".
And then there is Vertu's partypiece, the "Vertu key", which provides instant access to a curated world of benefits and services via a global team of professionals to clients wherever they are, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. These services include Vertu Certainty, which helps protect the device, its data and, where necessary, the customer. Vertu Life - tailored information, articles and benefits - sits alongside the "Concierge Service", through which customers can ask for almost anything. "The TI means that our customers can leave the house in the morning with just this phone in their pocket or bag, without the need for any other device," Amstutz adds.
It certainly makes Vertu's handsets more relevant than ever, especially when one considers the sheer speed at which this kind of technology moves. But even if the company had resolutely carried on with the Nokia technology of old, it could probably have made it for a few years yet. The continuing sales of its older handsets is proof of that. For some, a phone is still just a device for talking with somebody else but, at last, Vertu can appeal to the tech geek that exists inside many of us.
But will it find enough customers willing to spend a minimum of Dh39,500, when they could bag an iPhone, Samsung Galaxy or many others for less than a tenth of that price? I would say that demand in this region is likely to outstrip supply - the phone is king here and Vertu is definitely in a league of its own.
At a glance
1. From Dh39,000 for the titanium black leather model, to Dh79,000 for a version in red gold
2. 3.7-inch touchscreen in sapphire crystal (can be scratched only by diamonds)
3. Titanium case - around five times stronger than any other smart phone
4. Bang & Olufsen certified sound
5. Dual-core 1.7GHz Snapdragon S4 processor, and an 8-megapixel camera
6. NFC and 64GB of internal storage, plus a front-facing webcam
7. Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich OS
8. Life, Certainty and Concierge buttons with 24/7 access to your private operator, offering expert assistance, security services, device protection, recommendations and priority bookings, plus articles and benefits tailored to the user.