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Free’s Xavier Niel – France’s answer to Steve Jobs?

Text by: Aude MAZOUE
3 min

The launch of Free’s mobile offer will shake France’s mobile phone industry to the core. How much has its CEO Xavier Niel borrowed from Apple’s late Steve Jobs in style and in substance?


Xavier Niel has been paying attention. At Tuesday’s press launch there was a countdown and a rocket launched into space on the giant screen before Niel swept onto the stage, casually dressed in a white shirt and wearing a microphone clipped to his ear.

His audience of cheering fans and journalists were impatient to hear confirmation of rumours of an inexpensive mobile phone offer that promised one of the biggest shakeups to the French telecoms industry in modern times.

Niel’s tightly orchestrated communications extravaganza bore all the hallmarks of an Apple product launch.

Borrowing from the master

Neil is not only inspired by the late Steve Jobs’ casual presentation style – he’s also borrowed heavily from Apple’s hugely successful marketing strategy.

Firstly, he chose to announce Free’s landmark offer on the same day as the opening of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, the world’s biggest geek magnet, as a sure way of attracting the attention of France’s technology fans.

Steve Jobs did exactly the same thing – timing the launch of the first iPhone with the opening of the 2007 CES in January 2007.

Secondly, the launch of Free’s mobile offer follows months of carefully managed rumours - many true - and false leaks to keep pundits and competitors guessing.

A few weeks before Tuesday’s announcement Niel upped the tension by tweeting a sentence from a famous French poem by Verlaine which was originally the signal to the French Resistance from Radio Londres in 1944 that the D-Day invasion was imminent.

Undercutting the competition

And then there is the competition. Just as Steve Jobs battled the likes of IBM and Microsoft, so Niel wants to break the hegemony of the big three mobile operators who have dominated France’s mobile airwaves until now.

Specifically, these are Orange, part of former state monopoly France Telecom, SFR and Bouygues, against whom Free has been waging a highly publicised battle of attrition since 2003, when Niel launched the “Freebox”, giving digital TV, free landline calls and high speed Internet in one handy package.

By selling the service at 29.99 euros, the “Freebox” undercut all the competition, forced other providers to reduce their prices and gave Free the image of an innovator which was simultaneously fighting the customers’ corner. Just like Apple…

Rebuilding a soiled reputation

The Freebox didn’t just force the competition to back down. Niel also borrowed from Apple’s success by implementing high design values to the equipment itself, bringing style as well as ever-increasing functionality into customers’ homes.

As an innovator forcing change in a restricted and expensive market, Xavier Niel is seen by many - and almost certainly by himself - as France’s answer to Steve Jobs.

And an image makeover that transforms Niel’s reputation can only be a good thing for the entrepreneur who was sentenced to two years in prison and a fine of 250,000 euros in 2005 for laundering money through sex shops.

But while Free can count itself as a huge success in France, where it is the country’s eighth-biggest company, it is ranked 297 in the world, a long way behind Apple.

Niel’s French rocket has a significant way to go before it can claim the kind of world domination that Apple enjoys.

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