THE first time I encountered a “dual SIM” mobile phone was in Uganda last year, when I was researching a special report on mobile phones in the developing world. It was branded NOKLA, and was a very faithful copy of a Nokia handset, with two additions: the garish LEDs built into the sides of the phone and the fact that it supported two SIM cards, allowing its owner to use two networks seamlessly with a single device.
The use of multiple SIMs is widespread in the developing world, because it saves money. It’s usually cheaper to call someone on the same network than someone on a different network, and there are lots of special deals offering discounts at particular times of day, though these vary from operator to operator. To get the best available deal for a particular call, it makes sense to own lots of SIMs, and to swap the appropriate SIM into your handset when needed. The problem, of course, is that you then end up with lots of phone numbers, and you really only want to give out a single number to other people. So in practice you use one SIM most of the time, and occasionally swap in another one. This is also common practice among people who travel a lot, and among cost-conscious users, such as teenagers, in the developed world.
For people juggling multiple SIMs, a dual-SIM phone therefore has obvious appeal: it allows your phone to act, in effect, as two phones at once, sitting on two networks, and may even be able to switch between active calls on different networks. In the rich world, however, most handsets are sold by operators, and operators are not keen on dual-SIM handsets. They would rather not admit that rival operators exist, and they make it difficult to switch SIMs by, for example, locking handsets so that they only work on a particular network. In the poor world, however, handsets and SIMs are often sold separately, so dual-SIM handsets are more widely available.
So Nokia’s announcement today of two new dual-SIM handsets, the C1 and C2, is interesting. There’s clearly strong demand for this feature in the developing world, and at the moment much of it is being met by makers of knock-off handsets. That means Nokia is missing out on sales, but it can only compete with the knock-off handsets if it offers a dual-SIM feature too. (Samsung, for its part, has made dual-SIM handsets for some time.) The C1 handset, which will cost about 30 euros when it goes on sale in the third quarter of this year, has two SIM slots, only one of which is active at a time; but you can switch between them by holding down a single key. The phone also has a standby time of six weeks, a built-in FM radio and a torch. The C2 handset (pictured above, and due in the fourth quarter) supports two active SIMs at once: hence the dual signal-strength indicators. You can take a call on one network and put it on hold when a call on the other network comes through. There are, in other words, two lots of radio circuitry in the phone, which helps explain why it costs a bit more (45 euros).
Why is Nokia doing this now? In part, I think, it’s because it doesn’t want to be out-innovated by pirates. But it’s also because Chinese vendors that start out producing knock-offs quickly learn the ropes and then start to produce increasingly competitive products. We’ve seen this happen with network gear and cars in the past decade, and now it’s starting to happen with phones, as can be seen from Gartner’s latest figures for handset market share, released on May 19th. As usual Nokia is on top, followed by Samsung and LG; RIM and Apple are coming up the field fast, and Motorola and Sony Ericsson are imploding. That accounts for seven of the top ten handset-makers; but look at the other three. They are all Chinese. You’ve probably heard of Huawei and ZTE, but GFive? Who are they?
GFive, it turns out, is a handset-maker based in Hong Kong. It describes itself as “the most elegant mobile brand from China” and says it is backed by a syndicate of Chinese factories which have collectively produced over 100m handsets to date. GFive’s phones are based on chipsets made by MediaTek of Taiwan, and many of them support dual SIMs. As we pointed out in a piece last August:
MediaTek’s technology has revolutionised the manufacture of mobile phones in mainland China. A handset firm there used to need 20m yuan ($2.9m), 100 engineers and at least nine months to bring a product to market. Now 500,000 yuan, ten engineers and three months will do. As a result, Chinese handset-makers now number in the hundreds. Many churn out shanzhai (or “bandit”) phones: knock-offs of established brands, labelled “Nckia” or “Sumsung”. Others are true innovators, making handsets with big speakers or with two slots for SIM cards, so that one handset can be called on two different numbers.
According to Carolina Milanesi of Gartner, GFive is now the number three handset-maker in India, and it also sells its phones in South-East Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. Rather than selling through operators, GFive sells its handsets through very small retailers—the sort of corner shops where people commonly buy top-up vouchers for their phones. The firm’s website shows a wide range of handsets; and some of them, it must be said, look very similar to phones from established vendors. But as Chinese firms have demonstrated in other areas, and Japanese firms demonstrated before them, imitation can give way to innovation with surprising speed. And when it comes to dual-SIM handsets, the Chinese upstarts have blazed a trail that Nokia, the industry’s giant, is only now rather belatedly following.