Black markets eagerly await new iPhone

BANGKOK: The new iPhone looks set to be a huge hit in the three Asian-Pacific countries and one city where it goes on sale Friday, but the sleek smartphone from Apple is already in high demand on black markets from Shanghai to Bangkok.

In Thailand, a Southeast Asian hub for pirated goods, where the iPhone is not officially for sale, dealers boast that they need only a few weeks to smuggle in the trendy phones and unlock them for use on local mobile networks.

“I’m taking orders this weekend, and you’ll get it by the end of July,” said Toew, a phone dealer who asked to be identified by his surname only given the sensitivity of the matter. “We can sign a contract guaranteeing you will get it.”

He was offering the eight-gigabyte iPhone 3G for 29,000 baht, or $860, on the Internet, he said.

In comparison, the iPhone will retail in the United States for $200 for the eight-gigabyte model and $300 for the 16-gigabyte phone, although customers will have to sign up for a two-year contract with AT&T.

At the MBK center in Bangkok, filled with pirated DVDs, clothing and luxury goods, many shops are advertising hacked iPhones with signs that read: “Good price, we unlock very fast.”

Trading iPhones via the Internet has become more popular in recent months, with prices for the current model iPhone rising 25 percent to 30 percent because of tight supply and rumors that the iPhone 3G cannot be hacked despite the claims of online shops.

An old iPhone with eight gigabytes of memory now costs 22,000 to 24,500 baht, up from 16,500 to 18,500 baht. A model with twice the memory fetches 25,000 to 28,000 baht, up around 5,000 baht from a few months ago.

“I’m an iPhone addict now,” said Tana Tanaraugsachock, a 41-year-old financial executive, who bought her first iPhone during a trip to the United States. “I’m going to sell the old one and buy the 3G phone. No matter what the price is, I’ll get one.”

A poll by a Thai Web site showed that more than 77 percent of 2,000 respondents wanted to buy the new phone, which Apple says has faster Web links than the old version and supports third-party software like games.

“It’s fashion and technology that attract mobile users to the iPhone,” said Prattana Leelapanang, an executive at the leading mobile operator in Thailand, Advanced Info Service, or AIS. “They are using more data services to surf the Internet.”

AIS estimates that there are 140,000 users of the old iPhone in Thailand, where a 3G network is only in the testing stage for now.

Apple is rolling out the new iPhone in more than 20 countries, including New Zealand, Australia and Japan, as well as the city of Hong Kong, but AIS has not yet reached a deal for Thailand, Prattana said.

In Hong Kong, Hutchison Telecommunications has been flooded with online applications from eager buyers. An unlocked iPhone costs 4,680 Hong Kong dollars, or $600, but customers must sign up for a two-year contract, with the least-expensive monthly plan costing 188 dollars.

Retailers in the rest of China, where the iPhone is not officially offered, are gearing up to sell hacked phones.

On the upscale Huaihai Road in Shanghai, a merchant at Cybermart mall said that an unlocked iPhone is priced at 3,000 yuan, or $438, but that a Chinese copy would cost 1,000 yuan.

“As soon as we get it from Hong Kong and bring it over and unlock it,” said Zhang, a shopkeeper who asked to be identified only by his surname. His business is two floors above an authorized Apple reseller.

Asked about claims that the new iPhones could not be hacked, he replied: “The Chinese are very quick at unlocking iPhones. They used to say that the PSP couldn’t be hacked as well, but we hacked it,” referring to Sony’s PlayStation Portable game console.

Inside the bustling Cybermart are rows of stalls bearing neon signs with local and global brands. No iPhones were exhibited in displays, but when asked repeatedly, merchants would sometimes offer to bring out hacked handsets from the back.

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