Apple brings iPhone to Latvia

Sept. 26 brought a smile to many Latvians as the long wait for the new iPhone 3G was finally over. At several LMT (Latvijas Mobilais Telefons) and Capital stores in the centre of Rīga, queues were up to 10 deep, but nothing like the frenzy experienced in the United States several months earlier. In some locations users had to wait up to two hours while staff were still learning the new in-store activation process, but four weeks later I was able to waltz straight into the LMT store near the corner of Brīvības and Ģertrūdes and get my new phone activated in less than 10 minutes.

Depending upon which of the three iStyle plans you choose, you can get yourself an iPhone for as little as LVL 1, but be prepared for a hefty LVL 60 per month for the next 24 months. This option, also called iStyle 3, includes 1,000 minutes, 1,000 text messages and unlimited data every month.

On the other end of the scale, if you pay around LVL 110 up front for the phone, then you pay only LVL 20 per month for 100 minutes, 100 messages and up to 100Mb of data for the iStyle 1 plan.

Another less known option for business customers (or for that fact anyone who has at least three mobile services on the one account) is that for a slightly higher up-front fee you can keep your existing Formula 8, 18 or 28 plan and add the HSDPA 5 (30Mb for LVL 5) or HSDPA 15 (200Mb for LVL 15) data plans. If you are a light user, for example Formula 8 and HSDPA 5, this becomes quite an affordable solution—LVL 13 per month.

The iPhone 3G has the further advantage that it will automatically seek and connect to any open WiFi services before switching to the more costly 3G or Edge service. This is good news especially for Estonia, where free public WiFi spots seems to be the norm. If you have broadband Internet at home, make sure to install a wireless router (no more than LVL 40) so that you can enjoy free and unlimited Internet connections via your iPhone 3G.

Be careful when travelling outside of Latvia, because none of the above mentioned plans include data calls overseas and costs could vary greatly from LVL 2 up to a whopping LVL 10 per 1Mb depending on the selected overseas carrier. If you don’t like the idea of locking yourself into a 24-month contract with LMT, then on your next visit to Italy you can grab an unlocked iPhone 3G for about EUR 400-500 that can then be used with any of the mobile operators in Latvia or the rest of the world for that matter.

About the same time as the iPhone 3G appeared in the Baltics, Apple released the iPhone 2.1 software update that for the first time allowed the easy input of Latvian letters. Up until then it was possible to view Latvian text (all of the current iPod models support the display of Unicode text), but there was no way of entering the special letters directly into these devices.

To enable Latvian text input go to Settings -> General -> International -> Keyboards and switch on the Latvian option. Estonian and Lithuanian languages are available as well. Using the iPhone “keyboard” hold down the letter key you wish to modify. A popup menu will appear showing the possible modified symbols. For example, if you want “ā” hold down the “a” key and choose “ā” from the popup menu. Latvian language purists may be disappointed since neither “ō” (o-macron) or “ŗ” (palatalised-r) are offered as modified letters, however both will display correctly. Surprisingly this feature of inputting Latvian text is not documented anywhere, not in the translated iPhone documentation, not on the LMT Web site.

The software update also offers “Riga, Latvia”, “Vilnius, Lithuania” and “Tallinn, Estonia” as a time zone option. Previously we had to settle with the closest city in the same time zone such as “Helsinki, Finland.”

The iPhone 2.2 software update released last month introduced even more Baltic friendly features. In the Settings -> General -> International -> Region Format, all three Baltic languages have been added to allow the display of localised date formats. Applications such as Calendar, Mail and Weather will now show the day and month names in Latvian. A few glitches, however, still need to be addressed. On the welcome screen the year is missing (for example, “otrdiena,.gada 2. decembris”) and the short form date displayed in Mail messages follows the U.S. format YY.D.MM rather than YY.M.D. Another much requested feature was the ability to switch off auto-correction, which proved to be a nuisance when texting and sending e-mail in any of the Baltic languages because of the lack of dictionary and spellchecking support.

Although Apple is gradually introducing more Baltic support with every new software update, for those who can’t wait for a complete Latvian user interface there is an unofficial Latvian localisation produced by Andris Ludriks and available on his Sadzīviskas figņas blog. However, to install the “LV interface pack 2.0” software requires “jailbreaking” your telephone, a process that is not supported by Apple and that could result in data loss.

The iPhone excels as a Web browsing device as well. Tilt the screen for portrait or landscape mode, double tap on images or text blocks to zoom in or use finger actions—pinching together, spreading apart or a simple swipe—to easily navigate through sections of your favourite online Latvian newspaper. No wonder Google is reporting that the iPhone generates 50 times more Web based search requests than any other mobile device. Some Latvian companies with a strong online presence haven’t wasted any time providing iPhone friendly versions of their Web sites, including directory and information service 1188, Swedbank (formerly Hansabank) and social network has been bold enough to charge users 50 santīms per week for this privilege, which then appears on their next mobile phone bill.

The GPS features also seem to work well. Using the Google Maps application, the iPhone was able to determine my location in central Rīga accurate to within a block. As you move out of Rīga a lot of detail is lost, but using the satellite view and the real time tracking blip on the screen we were able to navigate to a fairly remote destination on the banks of the Bullupe river.

On the application front development has been slower since the iTunes Store is not yet available for any of the Baltic countries. The iTunes Store is the mechanism for distributing third party applications, but you need to provide a registered credit card from a supported country (the U.S., Canada, Australia and others). This hasn’t deterred a Lithuanian software developer, Marius Kazemekaitis, from getting his Lithuanian news reader published among the many thousands of applications now available from the AppStore. For those lucky enough to get themselves an iTunes store account you can also purchase and download Latvian music to your iPhone. The selection is not large, but you can find artists such Iļģi, Prāta Vētra, Pēteris Vasks, Tribes of the City, The Hobos and others. For Latvian videos and films your only option at the moment is to get hold of the original DVD and rip to MP4 format. Our 5-year-old son regularly watches Gardēdis, Vāģi, Ledus laikmets and Avārijas brigāde on the 3.5-inch (9cm) screen.

With Latvian language support, reasonably priced LMT data plans and one of the best user interfaces on the planet, the iPhone 3G is sure to have an impact on the mobile phone market in the Baltics as well.

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