I’ve just returned from nearly a week traveling by train around Germany, noting, among other things, the different smartphones that I saw people using. I also stopped by some phone stores to ask about iPhone availability and use in Germany, among other things.
What I found was that iPhone penetration, at least in Germany, seems to be higher than it is in the U.S. I also saw far fewer Android phones than I see around the Washington, DC, area, where I’m based.
I have to disclose that my informal survey of smartphone preference is highly unscientific. I made no effort to conduct formal surveys. Instead, I went around looking over the shoulders of everyday Germans as they used their smartphones. Germans, it appears, use such devices as much as we use them in the U.S.
What I saw seems to indicate a larger proportion of iPhone use in Germany than in the U.S. I mostly saw two smartphone brands extant-iPhones and Blackberries-in about equal numbers. I noticed some use of Android phones, and there were lots of Nokia phones, although few of the Nokia devices I saw were smartphones. I saw one Windows Phone 7 device.
At the beginning of my research, I visited both a T-Mobile store and a store that sells phones of several carriers. I chose my interviewees based on one thing-that they spoke English. Yes, I know-more results of questionable scientific validity. Still, the answers I uncovered tended to support what I was seeing; but there are some caveats.
First, most of my observations were either on board Germany’s ultra-fast ICE (Inter City Express) trains that are frequented by business travelers; other observations were in train stations frequented by those same travelers. My other primary area of observation was while attending Christmas markets in several German cities, where I may have been under the influence of too much Gl??hwein and grilled sausages.
With those details in mind, here is what I think is going on. That three carriers in Germany sell iPhones, and every carrier sells BlackBerrys, seems to encourage their adoption. The ability to buy unlocked iPhones without a contract might also have an effect.
The broader availability of iPhones in Germany and other European countries (when compared with the U.S.), coupled with laws that require carriers to allow roaming on their networks by customers from other carriers, means that the carriers have less control, and that, in turn, means there’s competition, if not in the purchase price, then in the cost of service.
Its Easier to Roam with Your iPhone in Europe
In addition, the practice in Europe is to use prepaid SIM cards in phones as you travel between countries as a way to avoid roaming charges. It’s worth noting that while carriers are required to allow roaming between companies, it doesn’t have to be free when traveling between countries. As a result, a user of a French iPhone can face some steep charges when using the phone in Germany. To get around this, France requires phone companies to offer unlocked versions of every phone they sell.
While I couldn’t find evidence that Germany requires companies to sell unlocked versions of smartphones, Apple does sell an unlocked iPhone in its stores there, and also makes them available online. They’re not cheap, but they are available, and I was told by an employee at one of the phone stores I visited that they’ll work in the U.S. I was also told by an employee at the T-Mobile store at a mall in Karlsruhe that the German T-Mobile iPhone will work just fine in the U.S, and that it will work with T-Mobile’s U.S. 3G network. Unfortunately, it won’t support a U.S. T-Mobile SIM card.
What’s the upshot of all this? Well, it means that while you can buy an iPhone from Vodaphone (which owns nearly half of Verizon Wireless), O2 and T-Mobile, and while you can use it in the U.S. on T-Mobile or AT&T (depending on the relevant roaming agreement), it won’t be cheap because you’ll still have to pay roaming charges for being in the U.S. with a European phone. You can buy an unlocked iPhone that you can apparently use with any SIM card, but as you can see from Apple’s price list, that’s not a cheap option either.
That it’s not cheap to buy a European iPhone doesn’t necessarily matter very much: iPhones aren’t cheap anywhere. The difference in Europe is that they’re widely available and can be used on whatever network you happen to have access to. One of the advantages that the Europeans enjoy is that all of the phones use GSM, and they all use the same 3G technology and the same frequencies. If you’re traveling to Europe with an American version of your smart phone, you’ll find that phone coverage, including 3G coverage, is ubiquitous.
Also ubiquitous are iPhones and BlackBerrys. In Germany and elsewhere in Europe, this has a lot to do with there being plenty of different outlets to choose from and you can choose to get an unlocked version of either smartphone if you want one. Take that broad availability and couple it with service nearly anywhere, and you have a recipe for successful smartphone growth. Unfortunately, people who want iPhones in the U.S. don’t have those options-at least not yet.