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Thailand is buying record numbers of smartphones, but it’s Facebook that people really want

Demand for smartphones in Thailand is soaring, according to new research by GfK. Almost 3 million smartphones were sold in just the first four months of this year, and demand is particularly strong in the rural north, where sales have more than tripled in the last year, making Thailand the second biggest Southeast Asian market after Indonesia. GfK expects at least 70% sales growth in 2014.

Thailand already has 120% mobile phone penetration—more than one phone per person—but consumers are transitioning to software-laden smartphones from the basic feature phones that still make up about 60 percent of the market. Google just reported that Thais now spend more time online than they do watching TV—16 hours per week compared to 10 hours, respectively—and half the time spent online was via mobile phones.

The growth in smartphones has not yet translated to much growth in e-commerce, which remains nascent, or in online news—social media is the big attraction. Of the 25 million Thais who use the internet, 18 million of them have a social media account. Instagram usage is increasing by 151% a year; Facebook and Twitter are growing by 28% and 54% respectively. Even political activism, fueled by social networks, is now taking place online.

Smartphone makers have not failed to notice the trends, and competition is growing, even though the country’s mobile infrastructure is a bit of a mess. But mobile phone manufacturers, network operators, and other businesses aren’t complaining much—Thailand is too good an opportunity to miss.

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