Behind the scenesRetroSmartphone

How digitec brought the first iPhones to Switzerland

Martin Jungfer
Zurich, on 26.09.2021
Translation: Veronica Bielawski

The iPhone was not available in Switzerland in 2007 – but digitec changed that. Here’s a look at an exciting chapter in the history of Swiss online retail.

Deep down in the databases, Oliver Herren found the answer to my question. I had asked him about the date of digitec’s first iPhone sale. And the answer is: 29 February 2008, 12:58 p.m. The iPhone actually wasn’t officially available in Switzerland on that date. Unthinkable, given the fact that we’re presumably the country with the highest Apple market share today.

But those were different times. digitec was a small online store, the daring idea of three friends who were tired of having to pay exorbitant prices for computer parts or not getting them at all. In 2001, they founded an online shop that grew quickly.

And then, in 2007, Apple founder Steve Jobs presented a new type of mobile phone to the world. A device that did away with all keys – save for the so-called home button. At the time, the big players in the industry were only marginally interested in this development. Nokia had a market share of 38 per cent, with Samsung, Motorola and Sony-Ericsson fighting for the rest of the pie.

In the United States, the iPhone was only available from the network operator AT&T. And while it did make its way to Germany at the beginning of November 2007, it was also only available in combination with a two-year Telekom contract. In Switzerland, the first generation of the then-new iPhone was not officially available for purchase; Swisscom and Apple had only agreed on a deal for the second generation. This was made known in the spring, and the iPhone was then officially made available for purchase starting July 2008. The iPhone was very sought after, so customers could be «motivated» to take out an expensive Swisscom subscription with a 24-month term.

A lucrative deal between Swisscom and Apple

For iPhone buyers, the partnership between Apple and Swisscom brought with it a kind of gagging agreement that was lucrative for both companies. A lecturer at the University of Lucerne was even inspired to write an excercise in commercial and business law by the – in hindsight – sinister situation.

In 2007, the founders of digitec, Oliver Herren and Florian Teuteberg, didn’t want to wait so long for the iPhone to eventually come to Switzerland and only in combination with Swisscom. So, they pulled out all the stops. They can’t quite recall every individual hoop they had to jump through. But a trader named Mino, who was a shopper for digitec at the time, played a key role. «He had an idea how to do it and the means,» says Florian Teuteberg, now CEO of Digitec Galaxus. «He purchased said iPhones in the United States, in the United Arab Emirates, in Hong Kong and even in Israel,» explains Oliver Herren, now Chief Innovation Officer.

The problem in 2007 was that Apple simply didn’t want to deliver devices to Switzerland because of its agreements with the mobile network operators. They were just too lucrative for both parties.

So getting your hands on an iPhone before the official sales launch was not entirely devoid of small-town-marijuana-dealer vibes. The first Apple disciples, such as Internet entrepreneur Peter Hogenkamp, drove across the border into Germany in the dark of November. There, in a Telekom store – they were called «T-Punkt» at the time – he snagged an iPhone with no contract. Just a short time earlier, a preliminary injunction had ruled that Telekom was also allowed to sell iPhones without a SIM lock. Had to, in fact.

«It was quite the statement to have such a device back then,» Peter Hogenkamp recalls in conversation. The fact that Switzerland was not one of the first countries where Apple sold the device seems strange in retrospect. «But thanks to our dutiful spending, we tend to be the first in line when it comes to Apple these days,» says Hogenkamp. And he includes himself in that statement. He admits he’s bought every model since the very first one. Well, except for the iPhone 12, he skipped that one. But he’s back at it with the 13.

The smartphones that digitec was able to get in 2008 were also unlocked and, for Switzerland, equipped with a mobile phone contract from Sunrise. The offer was no secret; it was even advertised in a leaflet. And in buses and trams, as this gem from the digitec archives proves.

Like this, digitec also played its part in fostering the enthusiasm that would repeatedly lead to long lines forming in front of Apple stores in the following years and push the former market leader, Nokia, to the sidelines.

At the «Neue Zürcher Zeitung» newspaper (whose online edition was as uninspired as the print edition 15 years ago), people probably didn’t yet really believe in the revolutionary power of the first smartphone. But because digitec was selling iPhones, it seems the writer had to take up the pen after all.

«"Tired of the hype, the writer had actually decided not to publish anything more about this phantasm until the said thing was available for purchase in the shop round the corner. This is now the case – the store is called Digitec, an online retailer with two shops, and in its brochure, it has on offer the iPhone model with 16 GByte memory and a Sunrise contract, starting at 199 francs."»
Report by the NZZ in June 2008

In 2008, before Swisscom had actually sold the first iPhone 3G, an estimated 40,000 people in Switzerland had already made phone calls and surfed the Internet using the «hacked» first-gen device.

How many of them were brought into circulation by digitec? Probably a little over 3,000, according to Oliver Herren. That’s calculated from 29 February up to and including the day before Swisscom’s sales launch essentially opened the iPhone floodgates.

The journey of the first iPhones into Switzerland is reminiscent of trade in the Wild West. The iPhones were purchased individually by traders in the various countries and flown into Switzerland. Once in the country, they ended up in the duty-free warehouse in Kloten. Employees of digitec then examined the hot goods. If deemed in order, payment was accepted, upon which the trader released the goods.

The digitec pioneers didn’t make much off the iPhone. «The desire to offer the device to customers – regardless of whether Apple had planned it to be that way in its launch strategy – played a central role,» explains Florian. To which Oliver adds: «The customers wanted the products, we wanted to sell them. And being tied to a provider bugged us, too.»

And yet Florian and Oli did not automatically become Apple users

By the way, neither Florian nor Oliver became Apple users back then. Despite the exciting procurement. The CEO of digitec only made a «brief detour into the Apple universe» some time later, but quickly switched back to Android. And Oliver only made the leap to Apple with the iPhone 11; before that, he was on a Windows Phone, he reveals.

Perhaps it’s because the stubborn Swiss shop would remain in the U.S. giant’s bad books for many years to come that a digitec-Apple love affair never came to be; Apple wouldn’t officially start supplying digitec with its devices until five whole years after the large-scale grey-market import.

P.S. you’ll find digitec’s first offer of the iPhone from 2008 on posters as part of digitec’s current retro campaign (read more about that here). You’ll also find many other motifs that are likely to bring on the nostalgia.

P.P.S. If you’re interested in the history of digitec, you can read the interview with the founders Florian and Oli published in the Migros-Magazin (in German), for example. Or you can watch the seven-minute video interview with the two of them, published on Youtube in celebration of its 15th anniversary.

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Journalist since 1997. Stopovers in Franconia (or the Franken region), Lake Constance, Obwalden, Nidwalden and Zurich. Father since 2014. Expert in editorial organisation and motivation. Focus on sustainability, home office tools, beautiful things for the home, creative toys and sports equipment. 


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