Tech Scene in Myanmar Hinges on Cellphone Grid

YANGON, Myanmar — Images of Steven P. Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg adorn the walls of Myo Myint Kyaw’s creative digital agency. He says they inspire him. But he imagines neither man ever worked in an environment where Internet connections were so unreliable that a “file transfer” often involved delivering electronic documents across town by taxi.

In Myanmar, that is often faster than using email.

Mr. Kyaw said the start of a website for an American client based in Thailand involved an upload that took seven hours — a process that would have taken just minutes elsewhere. On another occasion, a client had to fly from Malaysia to hand-deliver high-resolution photographs that proved too large to send electronically.

But Mr. Kyaw, 29, the founder and chief executive of Revo Tech, remains optimistic about Myanmar’s technology scene. And thanks to a rapidly developing cellphone network, he predicts such technical difficulties may soon be in the past. Even better, he says, it presents a huge opportunity for mobile apps and web development.

“It won’t be like Silicon Valley even in five or 10 years,” he said. “But maybe in three to four years time we can catch up to Singapore.”

Limited telephone and Internet infrastructure, and decreasing smartphone costs, mean most of Myanmar’s 60 million people will experience the Internet for the first time through cellphones. The biggest growth potential, Mr. Kyaw says, is for mobile and web services relating to tourism, transportation and e-commerce.

Although broadband Internet prices have declined in the last two years, they remain high. Installation costs the equivalent of about $500, and the monthly rate for a 1 megabyte-per-second connection is about $70; the monthly rate for a connection twice as fast is $120. That is steep in a country where per capita gross domestic product was about $1,700 in 2013.

By contrast, a smartphone — and the Wi-Fi access it brings — can cost as little as $43, increasing the demand for mobile apps and services in Myanmar.

Next month, Revo Tech will introduce its first proprietary app, which will let children practice writing the Myanmar script by tracing letters on screen.

“We’re going to revolutionize the way our kids learn how to write Myanmar,” said Mr. Kyaw, describing the iPad app.

A Yangon-based Australian, David Madden, has similar socially conscious ideas. Mr. Madden founded Code for Change Myanmar and organized the country’s first hackathon, a gathering of developers to tackle a problem, in March. He said he hoped to “inspire the technology community and support the community to get excited about social innovation work.”

Assigned to create a technological solution to one of eight social problems presented by nongovernmental organizations, the winning team developed an Android app that allows farmers to share and receive alerts about pests and diseases from nearby farmers and the government. Mr. Madden said the team was discussing fully developing the app.

The growth of Myanmar’s telecommunications industry offers a potentially lucrative vein of work for developers. In June 2013, Myanmar’s government awarded Ooredoo Qatar and the Telenor Norway 15-year licenses to expand the country’s limited network. Ninety-two companies from around the world bid for the work, estimated to be worth about $2 billion.

A 2012 report by the Swedish telecom giant Ericsson estimates growth in the telecommunications industry could contribute as much as 7.4 percent of Myanmar’s gross domestic product over three years and employ 66,000 people full time.

Eric E. Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, told an audience here in March 2013 that Myanmar was about to “leapfrog 20 years of difficult-to-maintain infrastructure and go straight to the most modern architecture.”

But the lack of affordable and reliable Internet connections that is driving demand for mobile apps is also a major hurdle for Myanmar’s technology community. Thiha Aye Kyaw, 20, an Android app developer who works from home here, said of the first time he used a tablet: “I feel like I’m into the future, from what I’ve been using. That large screen, everything you can do with it.”

Like many other developers, he is self-taught and relies on online resources to keep up with technological developments. However, watching a YouTube video, for instance, can be painful with a slow Internet connection that crashes regularly.

“I have to download them with download managers overnight,” he said.

The industry also lacks experienced developers. Myo Myint Kyaw of Revo Tech said he had been looking for a web designer for more than a year, but could not find qualified talent.

“What happens in Myanmar is, they get a computer science degree, then they work in an agency, or come to our agency, to get experience,” he said. “Once they think they are good enough, they go to Singapore.” Developers can earn $1,600 to $3,200 a month in Singapore, compared with $500 to $600 for senior developers in Myanmar.

Even when programmers create a popular app, distribution can be a problem. Three years ago, Thiha Aye Kyaw created an Android app for typing with the Burmese Zawgyi font. But he could not sell it on Google Play because the platform was not available in Myanmar at the time. Google Play was, until recently, completely blocked, and not all iTunes functions are available to users in Myanmar.

Thiha Aye Kyaw worked around the problem by making his app available on local websites. He said it had been downloaded more than 100,000 times, largely relying on word of mouth. He made no money, but said he did not mind because he had earned recognition. Last year he worked as a consultant to help Samsung develop Myanmar-language support for mobile devices.

“They know me,” Thiha Aye Kyaw said of prospective clients. “They know my value, which is more priceless than money can buy.”

Soe Naung Win, 31, owns a mobile phone shop in Yangon and is helping consumers. The lack of international credit cards and limited access to iTunes and Google Play makes it difficult to download apps and pay for additional features.

“There is no Myanmar iTunes yet, so we created a fake U.S. iTunes account,” said Mr. Win, who holds a medical degree and retrained as a software developer. “After that, we can use an iTunes gift card to redeem the gift card code.” A friend in the United States buys iTunes gift cards and sends Mr. Win the codes, which he resells at a small profit.

This use of gift cards, applied around the world to circumvent geographic licensing restrictions, allows people in Myanmar to make purchases. In a similar fashion, developers who sell apps rely on relatives and friends living abroad to collect payments on their behalf.

The hope is that the next wave of infrastructure investment will help drive more technology businesses. Although neither Telenor nor Ooredoo would disclose a date for its networks to begin operations, each aims for the last quarter of 2014. Telenor plans to introduce 3G and the older, slower 2G networks. Ooredoo has chosen an all-3G strategy.

While mobile phones are already widely available, users are excited about improved connectivity from the thousands of towers the two telecoms are building across the country and the release of more SIM cards. Only a limited number of cards are available through a lottery system for 1,500 kyats, or about $1.50, from the state-owned Myanmar Post and Telecommunications. On the black market, cards can cost $80 to $100.

“There is huge pent-up demand,” said Ooredoo Myanmar’s chief executive, Ross Cormack.

Source: The New York Times

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