Far from check mate

Having achieved significant success in the Middle East, Africa and Europe, Dubai-based smartphone vendor i-mate is seeking to broaden the appeal of its product range with a raft of new handsets.

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By  Michael Thorne Published  September 7, 2006

|~|VG8S7455-200.tiff|~|i-mate sales director for the Middle East and Africa Steffan De Rosairo.|~|i-mate is widely regarded as one of Dubai’s corporate success stories. Former BT executive Jim Morrison established the company in Scotland in 2001, before relocating the business to Dubai in 2003. In the proceeding period, the company has successfully established a highly profitable position as a top five smart phone market vendor in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, with revenues placing the value of the company in the vicinity of US$800 million in 2005. I-mate’s latest handset release is the smartflip, which is also the company’s twelfth to date. The smartflip aims to tap the growing consumer demand for stylish smart phones that are more than dedicated business communication tools. The handset doesn’t resemble a typical smartphone, which are generally bulky and boast large touch screen displays. Instead it is much smaller, and incorporates the full portfolio of i-mate smart phone features, except the touch screen, in a popular clamshell-style. “The new handset typifies the trend towards compact aesthetic design in a smartphone,” says i-mate sales director, MEA, Steffan De Rosairo. “Clamshell phones are seen as more of a fashion accessory, however the smartphone factors still remain because it has most of the same features. “Consumers are aware of the benefits they want to derive from the phone and they know what smartphones have to offer. They will look at this phone in a different way given that it is fashionable as well as practical.” De Rosairo explains that despite the attempt to target a wider consumer base with the new smartflip, the company still places it alongside other smartphones at point of sale. “We try to keep the smartflip separate from the general clutter of other phones,” he explains. “It’s a difficult proposition since the standard talk and text operations remain the key functions of any phone. We need to draw consumer attention to what features the phone offers above that of a ‘dumb’ mobile handset.” Each i-mate handset features Microsoft Windows Mobile 5.0 operating software and Mobile Office applications including Word, Excel and Powerpoint; push email; Bluetooth connectivity; a digital camera; an mp3 player and interactive Java-enabled games. “We work hard to ensure that retail staff are properly trained and can explain the benefits of the handsets to consumers. However, in the retail sector there is a high turnover of employees, so it’s a big challenge keeping staff clued up about the latest technology,” De Rosairo says. “Generally we’ll train a staff member in a senior position, such as that of a supervisor, so they can pass the knowledge on to their colleagues. “These units require a greater level of consumer contact and explanation of the features and their benefits but most consumers are already decided on the features and specifications they are looking for before they enter a retail outlet. “We also have an online information resource known as ‘Club iMate’, which is another way that consumers can find out more about our smartphones and other products – we promote this resource heavily via media outlets.” ||**||Sought-after items|~|45-200.gif|~|i-mate's Smartflip handset.|~|De Rosairo says smartphones are highly sought-after products amongst channel distributors, since they offer healthy margins, more stable pricing structures and a less volatile market compared to standard handsets, which are quickly superseded once they are launched onto the market. “We generally give the distributors and retailers fairly healthy margins,” says De Rosairo. “We recommend the best retail prices so they know what margins they can get. “Over the few years we have been operating in the Middle East we have established a solid reputation in the smartphone and PDA market with our handsets. There is usually quite a bit of anticipation in the market when we launch a new product as it’s a relatively rare occurrence. This is a good thing for our distributors and retail partners. “We typically maintain an 18-month product cycle because we see these devices as long-term companions for end users, rather than fashion statements that quickly become obsolete. We perceive them less as commodities and more as practical handsets with clever applications.” I-mate has four distributors servicing the Middle East: Axiom, Source IT, Techdata and Cellucom, all of which are based in the UAE. “A number of new retailers have recently established operations in the Middle East, particularly in Saudi Arabia,” says De Rosairo. “We have worked with our partners and taken a special interest in building up a relationship with these companies by providing them with special rates and product bundles to kickstart their business and get them on-board the i-Mate ship for the future.” De Rosairo emphasises that there is still plenty of room for competition in the Middle East smartphone market, with the expansion of 3G services providing key commercial opportunities across the region for handset vendors. “The full impact of convergence has not been felt in the mobile handset sector so there remains plenty of opportunities for development,” he says. “The corporate sector has developed at a very positive rate and now people are talking about incorporating fully converged devices into their servers and systems applications, which will be a very positive development for all involved in the market.” “We are currently developing strategies aimed at providing greater support to our partners that service corporate markets. We expect these initiatives to have knock on effects in the consumer market also, as people become more familiar with using these devices in professional environments.” Improvements in technology and the increasing availability of associated services in the Middle East should also drive renewed demand for smartphone handsets in the consumer sector. Aesthetic design is also becoming increasingly important , especially as vendors seek to tap the region’s highly image conscious consumer markets. De Rosairo was unperturbed when queried about comments made by Mark Billington, the chief executive of rival O2’s Asia Pacific operations, in the June edition of ECN. I-mate’s Morrison previously worked with the UK-based vendor before leaving to set up i-mate, while O2 recently launched its own range of smartphones in the Middle East. When quizzed about the challenge posed by i-mate, Billington quipped that O2 was not concerned about “localised competition from ‘me-too’ brand companies”. “We are keenly observing the activities of all of our comeptitors in the market,” De Rosairo says diplomatically. “We are forging our own strategy, dictating the terms ourselves, since we’ve been operating in this region for a significant period and it remains a key market for our business.”||**||

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