Tech sector sizzles as Myanmar embraces Internet for the masses
From navigating gridlocked city roads to playing a favourite national sport, new homegrown apps are blossoming in Myanmar as cheap mobile technology ignites an Internet revolution in the once-isolated nation.
Myanmar web surfers were once paradigms of patience and ingenuity as they dodged and weaved through the former military regime's communications blocks in decrepit backstreet Internet cafes.
But commuters in Myanmar's biggest cities can now be seen tapping away on smartphones as an online awakening sweeps the country, fuelled by the loosening of junta-era restrictions and foreign telecoms firms unleashing a flood of affordable SIM cards.
Big brand names like Facebook, Google, Viber and Instagram have rapidly expanded their presence in the country, lured by the growing market—and web-savvy local entrepreneurs are also seizing the chance to create Internet ventures in Myanmar style.
"There are so many things I want to do—I think about it not as business but as a way to find solutions to problems I face," said Ei Maung as he demonstrated his prototype traffic app in a car inching through the congested streets of the commercial hub Yangon.
"Yangon commuting is worse than bad. It's terrible. You waste countless hours queuing in traffic every day," he told AFP.
His Cyantra: Crazy Yangon Traffic app went live in June and allows smartphone users to share traffic problems and view potential snarl-ups on their driving routes.
Internet access has already increased exponentially since the country began to throw off the shackles of military rule.
Just one percent of the population was thought to be online three years ago, as the democratic transition began, but the loosening of web controls and greater access to affordable phone cards has opened the Internet up to millions.
On Saturday Norway's Telenor launched SIM cards costing just 1,500 kyat ($1.5) in Mandalay—a far cry from the $3,000 a card could cost under military rule—ahead of a wider roll-out in Yangon and Naypyidaw.
The move comes after Qatari firm Ooredoo began selling its SIM cards at the same price last month, throwing open the mobile Internet floodgates.
An estimated 25 percent of people are already online and the Myanmar Computer Federation expects around half of the population, over 25 million people, to be surfing the net in the next three years.
David Madden, whose Yangon-based Code for Change group seeks to promote and support budding techies, said that unlike in the West where web design began with a focus on computers and laptops, Myanmar Internet consumers will be primarily using cheap smartphones.
"People are going to be able to afford one thing and they are going to want it to do a lot," he told AFP. "It's the thing you want in your pocket, it's the thing you want when you are sitting in a bus stuck in traffic."
Social media giant Facebook has dominated the Myanmar web to such an extent that it is the first—sometimes only—port of call for web users.
But Google's Myanmar-language search engine has struggled to attract users because it uses a standardised font—unicode—whereas many Myanmar websites are written in a locally-produced zawgyi font, meaning they are unreadable on the international search engine.
A local firm Bindez, led by former Google employee Rahul Batra, is taking on the web Goliath as it tries to create a zawgyi-compatible search engine.
The booming tech scene has also given the country a chance to showcase local passions, from checking personalised horoscopes, to a game that allows armchair sportsmen to play virtual "Chinlone"—a beloved traditional cane ball game—with a quirky owl avatar.
And while connections often remain glacially slow, online entrepreneurs are now grappling with the dilemma that has tormented web-based firms the world over—how to turn clicks into cash.
Mobile money—using the credit bought to top-up mobile phones to make payments for other goods and services—helped by the flood of affordable SIMs now entering circulation, could help.
It is seen as a vital potential tool for the vast swathes of Myanmar's largely unbanked and rural population to access anything from loans to retail payments.
One popular Myanmar comic, Putet, has already begun using this style of payment system—495 kyats a month (50 US cents) is skimmed from users' mobile phone charges, giving them unlimited access to hundreds of colourful cartoon strips.
"It is important to make money—we have to buy cartoons, pay our staff. Advertisements do not make enough money," editor Aung Chit Khin told AFP.
Readership of Putet's paper version had plummeted from 10,000 to just 4,000 in the eight years before the app was launched, as it vied for attention with foreign comics, television and games.
While the comic still is not turning a profit, there are now 8,000 app users, attracting more buyers of the paper edition, which has seen its circulation swell to 6,000.
"The app has saved it in a way," he said.
© 2014 AFP