iPod Overseas Report: Bangkok, Thailand 11/2007
There are places in the world where it’s hard not to see iPods, and places where you would never find them no matter how hard you looked. Then there is Bangkok, Thailand, a Southeast Asian city that confusingly sits someplace inbetween: what should one make of a place where first-generation iPod nanos seem to be more common on the streets than any other iPod, yet iPods are still in the apparent minority relative to other brands—despite the fact that brand-new iPods are widely available in stores, including those of official Apple-sanctioned resellers?
The answer appears to be simple: Thailand is one of a number of less wealthy countries where people are still daunted by Apple’s iPod pricing, and aren’t blanketed by its marketing. You wouldn’t guess this from a day or two of exploration here, as Bangkok has all of the signs of an environment conducive to iPod success: a culture interested in both domestic and international music, a huge youth population dependent upon public transport or the streets to go to school and shopping, and a level of technology savviness sufficient to appreciate the iPod/iTunes combination.
There are certainly plenty of stores with iPods for sale. And if you look in the right places, you’ll even find an iPod ad or two around, or a Nike store window touting the Nike + iPod Sport Kit combination. The country, as represented by this city, seems highly iPod-ready.
But from what we’ve gathered, it’s not. As we saw in both Malaysia and Singapore, there are plenty of cell phones and no shortage of MP3 players on the streets here, but they’re not Apple’s, or even the semi-amusingly Apple-branded knockoffs. Despite persistent and even video subway ads for Motorola’s RAZR 2, low-end phones and inexpensive flash memory screened music players are clearly what’s popular here; Nokia models and Sony Ericssons dominate the phone scene, with random MP3 player brands filling the iPod’s gap.
Pricing—namely, the presence of less expensive options promising more features—is only part of the issue. The sheer number of iPod knockoffs for sale in Bangkok is amazing, and the ways that iPods have been cloned are all but stunning, particularly in the nano and shuffle families.
These are just a few of the second-generation nanos with too tall or too small cell phone-styled screens. We asked the vendor whether these were really iPods, and were told that they were. “From Apple?” we asked. “From Taiwan.” Oh? “Apple in Taiwan?” “Yes,” said the merchant. Make of that what you will. Cloning aside, it’s obvious that “iPod” is beginning to become a generic name for “MP3/MP4) player” locally, a problem Apple will need to confront to avoid seeing its products go further down the Xerox road.
We also saw lots of clones of third-generation nanos. They have colorful plastic front shells and Click Wheels that may or may not be properly aligned.
There are also plenty of second-generation iPod shuffles, most notably in black—hey, why hasn’t Apple done that?—and in 2GB models. Some, as shown above, even have screens. We get the impression that screenless flash-based players are just not interesting to users here.
iPhone clones? Surprisingly few and far between. There is this iPhone-like thing from a company called KER, but it’s not a phone. It’s much smaller than the iPhone, and doesn’t have a touchscreen: rather, it’s just a cheap audio and video player. The home button remains, alongside track, menu, and volume buttons that have been built into the unit’s face corners—you press the corners of the face, iRiver Clix-style, to change what’s happening on the screen. At least, that’s supposed to be how it works; it didn’t seem to be very responsive when we tried to play with one.
There are even silicone cases made specifically for the knockoffs, sitting in the display cases alongside them, and occasionally, knockoffs of popular iPod accesories. Bose’s SoundDock has been completely and shamelessly cloned by a company called Embee—the first direct duplicate we’ve seen of this system, putting aside the many approximations and wannabees. We got the feeling that more time was being put into marketing the fakes than the real things.
Some of this is clearly attributable to iPod envy in a place where the real things aren’t as affordable or available as they should be. On a more positive note, there are iPhone-inspired ads in shopping malls where stores aren’t selling Apple’s products.
And there are things like these—Apple-inspired, kid-friendly t-shirts, which we’ve seen in stores but never on people: iPood, the odd “Strawberry” branded, iPod-styled Mickey Mouse, and the Mac.Suck t-shirt, which was buried on a rack at a store focused mostly on “Nerd” and other computer-centric clothes.
In a city where knockoffs of foreign fashion and luxury brands are common, the Apple brand rarely appears off of media players. These wallets and cases were an unusual exception.
As noted earlier in this article, the main obstacles to iPod popularity here appear to be price and marketing—along with the lack of a local iTunes store, these are signs that Apple doesn’t take Thailand too seriously as a market for its digital media players. On the plus side, Apple’s Asian arm does bother to translate certain iPod point-of-purchase brochures—not signs—into Thai. And it does offer most of the new iPod lineup here, notably minus the red nano and shuffle.
The problem is the pricing. Apple’s “Premium Resellers” offer iPods at the following premiums over U.S. prices:
Once again, in a region where people have less disposable income than in the United States, they’re charged a lot more for iPod models than U.S. customers are. And it’s not like there’s a single $40 premium that uniformly accounts for marketing costs, or a premium that varies slightly based on greater shipping or marketing costs for certain models. Basically, as the iPod’s price goes up, so does the premium over the U.S. price, which when added to the local 7% VAT makes top models all but unaffordable locally.
Resellers offset this modestly by offering discounts on discontinued models. Last year’s 4GB iPod nano sells for 4500 Thai Baht, or $142 with tax, $132 without. The prior shuffle sells new for 3450 Baht—$109 with tax, $101 without. That these models are still pricey explains why, when we have spotted iPods here, we’ve felt like we were flashing backwards a year or two in time. There was the one woman we saw with an iPod nano in one hand and an original Motorola RAZR in the other, just like 2005-vintage experiences we’ve had in the U.S. and elsewhere. The models and accessories we see are a nearly unflinching combination of a white first-generation iPod nano, a frosted clear silicone rubber case, and pre-2006 iPod earbuds, most likely purchased after the models were discontinued and their accessories sold at a discount.
We only rarely see newer earbuds in ears here, and as uncommon as they are, they’re generally connected to white full-sized 5.5G iPods, not colorful second-generation nanos. That white iPods would be popular here has been a big surprise to us, given the incredible, vivid colors we see everywhere else we look: the very shades picked by Apple for its second-generation nano lineup appear to have come directly from Thai silk markets. We saw one fabric store where the nano’s exact colors were lined up right next to each other, though in truth, that level of color saturation is almost impossible to miss here.
That’s not to say that everything’s backwards in Bangkok. Apple does sell Apple TVs, and prior-generation video-ready accessories are more widely sold here than they were in Japan—Sonic Impact’s Video-55 (and i-P22) are sold by Astone here, “powered by Sonic Impact”—and we’ve seen i-Theater video glasses, too.
It’s obvious that video is considered to be a selling point of the iPod family, and though we have yet to see people actually watching portable videos on the above-ground Skytrain and underground MTS rail systems here, the presence of video advertisements and even music videos on the Skytrains suggests that people are ready for their own devices. Craig David’s Hot Stuff, a remake of David Bowie’s Let’s Dance, has been playing on the Skytrain monitors while we’ve been in town.
Audio accessories, primarily speakers and cheap headphones, are the biggest local draw. Some of the models, such as Bose’s SoundDock (17900 Baht, or $566), are familiar, but clearly not widely purchased. Less expensive newer systems, such as DLO’s iBoom Home—as yet unannounced in the United States, but selling here for around $100-125—are interesting, while still other unfamiliar speakers, including myriad clones of Altec Lansing inMotions and JBL speakers, are not.
In legitimate stores—those run by Apple-authorized resellers—major U.S. brands are impressively well-represented, though their products range from current to far-past offerings. Marware, Griffin, Belkin, DLO and XtremeMac are just some of the vendors with full lineups of cases and electronic accessories on display, with all of the new iPods (and even the iPhone) given add-on options. Discontinued Griffin, Belkin, and TEN Technology accessories are also pretty common, too. Some stores sell them at full price; others offer aggressive discounts.
From what we have seen here, Apple’s biggest potential opening appears to be for the iPhone—more specifically, if it can release a smaller, cheaper iPhone to cater to local tastes. Over five days spent mingling with Bangkok’s locals, we’ve seen zero actual iPhones in use besides our own, which registered a few curious stares when we whipped it out for iPhones Around the World pictures.
The lack of iPhones in Bangkok is most likely due to their pricing, size, and the PDA-like feature set. We have seen comparatively few smartphones in use around here—only a handful of Sony Ericsson, Blackberry, and Windows Mobile models in actual hands—as the bulk of interest appears to be in candybar-style designs rather than flip, slide, or touch-style phones. In short, what would have the best chance at success here would be an aggressively priced phone akin to Motorola’s ill-fated ROKR, but with better execution.
Before that happens, iPhone unlockers will continue to dominate the small local market for Apple phones. Our past experiences in other countries had us expecting to see iPhones all over the local cell phone shops, touted openly at widely varying prices. In Thailand, however, the small vendors appear to be willing to talk about the iPhone and promote it in handwritten or printed signs, but they don’t always have them in stock, and rarely if ever on actual display.
On one of our visits to a major electronics mall yesterday, we saw unlocked iPhones selling for between 23,000 and 24,000 Baht, the equivalent of $725 to $757—much higher than U.S. prices for locked phones, but nowhere near what we’ve been seeing as top eBay prices over the last month. And even though iPhones themselves aren’t as widely available as we’d expected, the number of iPhone accessories around here is surprising. Though iPod touch cases are few in number and almost exclusively limited to no-name vendors here, small and large accessory makers alike are selling lots of different iPhone cases.
As fans of Apple’s products, it’s hard to feel thrilled about the state of the iPod or iPhone in Thailand. No matter where we’ve visited or how we’ve gotten there, it’s rare to see iPods actually in use by members of the Thai population, and when we do see them in hands, they’re always old models; when we see them in stores, they’re most frequently knockoffs. That’s a shame, as it’s plainly obvious that people here love their cell phones and music. It’s possible that Apple has opted not to bother much with this market—it doesn’t even operate an online Apple Store for Thailand—due to copyright concerns, as other companies have had to offer special lower-priced versions of their software and music offerings to accommodate this piracy-loving country. That’s not Apple’s style.
But global price decreases sometimes are. When Apple announced its 1GB, $149 first-generation iPod nano roughly two years ago, we cheered because it had finally made available a model that offered the features people wanted (flash memory and a color screen) at the price less wealthy countries and their people could afford. With nano component prices falling and demand rising for affordable, small video players, perhaps now is the right time for a $99 2GB nano—offset by a modest international premium—for countries like Thailand. There’s no reason that the iPod should be outnumbered by competitors in a place like this, which has a thriving demand for cell phones and a legitimate demand for affordable MP3 players. We’re hoping that real iPods are more conspicuous than knockoffs and other alternatives in Bangkok by the next time we visit.
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