KT, a local mobile-phone operator, will release the much-anticipated Apple iPhone to local consumers this Saturday. / Korea Times
By Kim Tong-hyung
The South Korean debut of the iPhone has had more false starts than a drunken track meet. However, the frustrating guessing game was finally put to rest when KT, the local mobile-phone operator partnering Apple, announced that the iPhone handsets will be hitting the shelves this coming Saturday.
The iPhone, an Internet and multimedia-enabled handset designed and marketed by Apple, has become a globally iconic product since its 2007 release. Regulatory issues and the reluctance of local wireless operators, however, have prevented the device from coming here.
Despite its belated debut, the iPhone is clearly the most hyped-up device released to Korean mobile users in years, with its breadth of Internet capabilities such as e-mail, Web browsing and Wi-Fi connectivity, as well as the wealth of software provided through Apple's App Store.
The arrival of the iPhone is expected to fuel a heated consumer market for "smart" phones, which provide Web browsing, multimedia and other data features.
Consumer electronics makers are shifting their focus to smart phones, which provide bigger margins than conventional handsets. Web-enabled phones are also critical to mobile carriers, which are struggling to sustain growth in a saturated voice market and have yet to get significant return on their massive investment in third-generation (3G) and other mobile data networks.
The price of the 32-gigabyte iPhone 3GS was set at 369,000 won (about $341) for customers subscribing to monthly plans based on the basic rate of 45,000 won, KT said. Subscribers paying 65,000 won in basic rates can buy the phone for 264,000 won, while premium users signing up for the monthly plan based on a 132,000 won basic rate, for more data usage and multimedia features, won't have to pay separately for the handset.
The 8-gigabyte model will be priced at 132,000 won for subscribers who signed the 45,000 won basic rate, while those who agree to more expensive monthly plans will get the handset for free.
The iPhone can be pre-ordered on KT's official handset site, Phone Store (www.phonestore.show.co.kr), through Friday. Subscribers ordering online will get their iPhones by Saturday, while the handsets will be available at KT's sales outlets starting Dec. 1.
"We are very happy to be introducing the iPhone to Korean consumers," said Kim Woo-shik, who heads KT's mobile business division.
"The innovative image of the iPhone and the renewed energy of KT, after absorbing KTF, will combine to create synergy."
The absence of Apple's do-it-all smart phone has been the most glaring omission in a country that touts itself as the mobile-phone capital of the planet.
The arrival of the iPhone may pose the biggest challenge yet to Korean consumer electronics giants such as Samsung Electronics and LG Electronics, which have been enjoying a virtual duopoly in the domestic mobile-phone market for years.
The government retiring its homemade standard specifications for data-enabled mobile phones, called as WIPI (wireless Internet platform for interoperability), in April cleared an effective trade barrier for Apple. But the difficult negotiations between the American device maker and local carriers KT and SK Telecom extended the waiting game for the iPhone.
The Korean operators weren't too crazy about the idea of sharing data revenue with Apple, as the American device maker does with all of its partner carriers around the world.
The companies were also concerned about surrendering their tight control of the content value chain, as the carrier wouldn't get anything from software downloads on the App Store.
Eventually, KT, fighting with SK Telecom in the 3G market, felt it couldn't afford to miss out. SK Telecom, which controls more than 50 percent of the country's mobile consumers, decided to pass on Apple's phone and, instead, announced plans to release a smart phone powered by the Google-backed Android operating system next year.
Smart phones are now a key segment for Samsung, which trails Nokia as the world's No. 2 handset vendor, and LG, which is edging Motorola and Sony Ericsson for the No. 3 spot. Both companies are introducing waves of premium handsets to challenge the iPhone for supremacy in global markets, and both have no intentions of letting Apple profit on their home turf.
Samsung recently released five new models from its Omnia smart phone family, which had enjoyed the status of being dubbed smart phone royalty among local mobile users. But that was before the iPhone came into the picture.
KT, which has been operating a high-speed downlink packet access (HSDPA) network with nationwide coverage since 2007, claims that its advanced 3G mobile network will provide an optimized environment for iPhone users. IPhone users can also access free wireless Internet in Wi-Fi areas, including KT's 13,000 Net Spot zones nationwide.