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Consumer tech, designed for instant gratification, depends heavily on infrastructure: stable power, always-on broadband, fast logistics, and cashless payments.
Companies spend big on R&D to make consumer gadgets and apps optimized for ideal, modern environments. To differentiate their devices, companies also load them with features that lead to high price tags.
But, of course, there are poorer countries in the world that suffer a half-dozen power outages a day, where more than half the population lives off-grid, and where urban dwellers have to pump water out of aquifer wells. There are countries with fixed-line Internet so slow that it takes 20 minutes to load the Gmail interface, no data centres to call their own, cellular broadband charged on a per-minute basis, no credit cards, and all transactions done via cash.
Consider Myanmar, also known as Burma, where a military dictatorship formally dissolved three years ago. Since then, the small Southeast Asian nation has emerged quickly from a closed economy and stepped into the high-tech world.
Consumers there were previously accustomed to seeing SIM cards priced at 30 times the average monthly salary. When prices dropped to the equivalent of one average monthly salary, cell phone sales exploded. Thousands of cell phone stores have sprung up in the largest cities, and even the poorest villages have a couple of cell phone stores.
The technological revolution is now making a big difference for one farmer from the Irrawaddy River basin, who once a month makes a three-hour trip to her brother’s house in the city of Yangon to use his smartphone to talk to a daughter working abroad in Singapore. She’s saving up roughly $100 to buy her own smartphone.
“Last time we spoke to her using callback,” said U Mann Myint. Now the communication takes place smartphone to smartphone, using the Viber chat app. “One hour now only costs 250 kyats (US$0.26) by Viber. Last time, five minutes cost 1,500 kyats (US$1.50) by callback and 5,000 kyats (US$5.10) by SIM card call (direct phone call).”
Today the uptake for new SIM cards among Myanmar’s 61 million people exceeds 150,000 per month. When two new telecommunications providers go fully operational in the fourth quarter, the rate is expected to top 500,000 per month.
By comparison, the United States added 139,000 mobile connections in the second quarter of 2013. The US has five times the population of Myanmar and 45 times the average income. The average cost per minute for local calls in the US is about the same as that of Myanmar — 6 cents per minute.
The huge uptake of mobile phones is typical of developing countries in Asia, including Myanmar, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Cambodia. Mobile phones are easily the most important consumer tech product in the world.
From the popularity of mobile phones, it’s clear that the people who live in emerging economies want and need technology — mobile and otherwise. As tech makers compete in an increasingly saturated privileged world, it starts to make sense to design, build, and sell to emerging economies.
Certainly there’s still a long way to go in Myanmar, given the state of the infrastructure there.
“I am waiting for my next trip to Singapore to do a Windows update,” said Lwin Oo, general manager for a local IT supplier. “It is so big, and it will not finish here.”
Tech for the poor in emerging markets
For decades, villagers in Myanmar didn’t use direct electric power. They had diesel generators to pump water to their farms, and almost no one had a refrigerator or microwave. Cooking was done using firewood and charcoal, and villagers kept their leftovers in a larder. Not having TVs meant more visits to neighbors and relatives.
Everything has changed with the mobile phone, both financially and socially. Fishermen can now leave their catch in the sea when calling wholesalers, delivering just enough fish to meet demand and releasing the rest. They can also use their phone to keep in touch with offspring no longer living nearby.
Feature phone batteries last for days, but smartphones with Internet access last for a day at best — which is less than practical. To keep a phone charged, phone owners may still need to head to the village centre where someone keeps a truck battery charged with a generator, with 10 power plugs connected to a DC-AC inverter to power the chargers.
But what do tech companies do? Many ignore the poor countries on the assumption that villagers cannot pay for goods and that the cost of distribution is too high. Other companies have tried entering such countries with goods meant for developed markets and thus have suffered repeated failures.
Many have talked about it, but some companies are truly waking up to the opportunity of ”.” And they aren’t just focused on cell phones.
Schneider Electric, a French company specializing in energy management products, has developed a solar-powered LED lantern with USB charging capability. Panasonic is giving out 100,000 free Solar LED lanterns. Enerplex, a solar specialist in the United States, has said it’s willing to modify its solar charger technology for countries like Myanmar to achieve lower cost at the expense of bells and whistles.
Consumers in emerging markets, in some ways, are simply waiting for more tech companies to become genuinely interested in selling them cheap, reliable, simple products — ones that actually suit their needs.
When that eventually happens, Myanmar could be poised for an even greater surge of technological progress.
“Myanmar is a leapfrog country,” said Noom Tai, an executive at IT and electronics distributor Loi Heng International. “We have no legacy technology to care about. We have no old servers to upgrade, no old authentication systems to preserve, and no fragile patchwork systems to pander to. We can shoot to the state of the art faster than anybody else, if only people will understand our needs.”