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Myanmar Will Be the First Smartphone Only Country

By Wayan Vota on August 20, 2014


Today, Myanmar has the same mobile phone usage as North Korea, Eritrea, and Cuba – less than 10% – with only the urban elite owning smartphones, and mobile networks limited in scope and functionality. Yet technology restrictions are ending, and three mobile operators are racing to roll out services to 60 million across the country.

Ooredoo aims to have 3G coverage for 50% of the population by year’s end, with Telenor and Myanmar Post and Telecom with their own ambitious targets. By the end of 2015, most of Myanmar’s population will live within range of a 3G or better mobile network system.

The people of Myanmar will not be connecting to this network with basic or feature phones for three reasons:


1. Smartphones are cheap

While new iPhones are still several hundred dollars, there is an explosion of cheap Android handsets available in Myanmar already. $50USD can buy a Karbonn Smart A50S, Spice Smart Flo Edge from India or one of many no-name Chinese-made phones. And that’s today.

With the $25 Firefox phone coming out soon, we’ll see even cheaper, full-featured smartphones flooding the low-end market. By the end of 2015, expect smartphone prices even in developed markets dropping to sub-$100 prices.

2. Burmese are savvy

Mobile phones are also more than just a communications device; they are an aspirational status symbol. And Myanmar is not some remote backwater. Wedged between India and Thailand, with trade and cultural links to both, Burmese are quick to pick up innovations and aspire to join the ranks of Southeast Asia’s elite countries. They are not going to be satisfied with feature phones. Only smartphones will matter.

In fact, looking around Yangon today, I haven’t seen a single feature phone. Even the bus drivers and market sellers have smartphones of some type. They may be used or cheap Chinese knock-offs, but they are not basic phones. Offical surveys say that Android smartphones are 95% of the Burmese market already.

3. Services will be smart

Talking with Ooredoo and Telenor, they are focused purely on smartphone applications for their networks, as is the nascent technology start-up sector. None are looking at feature phone applications nor are they considering SMS text messages or even USSD as their communication system.

Even the international NGOs are moving quickly to develop smartphone applications for their constituencies. And once mobile money becomes widespread, they will even move “cash” payments from physical to virtual currencies.

What does this mean for you? First, adjust your perception of what a developing country looks like. The 60 million people of Myanmar are rushing into the future, practically overnight, and they will have the same technology in their hands as you do.

Next, realize that there will be big money to be made in multiple little niches. With almost 60 million people coming online, there will be massive opportunity to satisfy consumer and business needs – both obvious ones we are familiar with in other countries, and those unique to Myanmar.

Finally, what are you waiting for? The people of Myanmar are not waiting for you.

Filed Under: Featured, Hardware
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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of his employer, any of its entities, or any ICTWorks sponsor.
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15 Comments to “Myanmar Will Be the First Smartphone Only Country”

  1. Josh Woodard says:

    I love your optimism, Wayan, but I find it hard to believe that Myanmar will become a smartphone only country in the near future. The average annual wages of someone working in manufacturing there is around $1,000, and I can only image it is even less for farmers, which I believe employ around two-thirds of the labor force. $50 or even $25 represents a big portion of that income. I’ve not been to Myanmar for 7 years, so I cannot comment from current experience, but I can imagine that cheap 2nd hand basic and feature phones will make it on the market from Thailand and India. Since mobile access has been so expensive up until this date, the 95% figure is probably misleading. Those who could afford mobile access could afford the cost of a smartphone, so it is the obvious choice. My hunch is that this high percentage of smartphone ownership will no longer hold true once mobile access opens up to the entire country beyond the business and government elite.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      True, feature phones are available and smartphone prices are not yet in the sub-$20 range, but I would not underestimate the aspirational aspect of mobile phone ownership. We see time and again people prioritizing mobiles over food as they find the need for communication that compelling in their lives.

      • Josh Woodard says:

        I agree with the aspirational aspect of mobile phone ownership. I’m just not convinced that the entire country will be rushing for smartphones, when a $5-10 used feature phone will probably serve their initial needs just fine. In any case, the good news is that we should find out this answer soon enough.

      • Simone says:

        Aspiration is definitely a great driver. By experience I can tell that already in Ghana in 2004-2005 there was a high correlation between the set up of a GSM antenna and the reduction in consumption of alcoholic beverages in the area.
        It’s weird how people behaves, but prioritizing communication seems quite a trend (it happened the same in Italy when the first TV sets were released: people in some regions prioritized them over.. everything, basically).

  2. Cavin says:

    The headline and the content in the article are misleading. There is no correlation.

  3. Noel Dickover says:

    Yangon is definitley a wierd place, where, previously, if you could afford a SIM card, which was $50+, you could afford a smart phone. The Government’s MPT telecom provider did offer a number of SIMS in a lottery for 2 bucks each. This network is still going farward as far as I know. Telenor is also offering both 2G and 3G SIMS, so they clearly see a market for the low end side.

    In the end, I am not convinced Myanmar is going to be that different from the rest of the world once regular market dynamics kick in. Young people will definitely be more intersted in smart phones, but they’ll still have to deal with the data costs. And really, the throughput of the country (18 GB outside of the military) is still too low to even do video. The bigger driver toward smart phones may be the problem of texting in Burmese, which is fairly difficult (most there do an english version of texting called “Burglish”).

    But really nobody knows what the mobile scene will look like in a year. Its a pretty massive change.

    • Cavin says:

      I think the headline, was a catch word. The battery of a smart phone lasts no longer than 24 hours, unless if you disable all the smart features. The low end phone will last for upto 7 days. For a developing country to become the first smart phone only country is a disney land reality or bollywood fantasy.

      • Wayan Vota says:

        Calvin, the power issue for mobile phones was solved years ago by the car battery entrepreneur. Just check out Matt Berg’s photo montage of power systems in Mali from 2009. I know I’ve been way, way off grid and there was always someone willing to charge my phone. And I have faith that the mobile phone dividend will continue with longer lasting batteries just around the corner.

        • Cavin says:

          Wayan, I think the notion of a mobile phone refers to mobility, unless the car battery, solar charger are also mobile. over 10 years ago, people talked about a paperless office. Very novel ideas, in Sci fi movies but not in the real world. You can decide to eliminate a GPS and opt to use your smart phone s gps. But if your journey is in 3 hrs +, you might end up at the grand canyon and not your destination. It would be cliche for a developing country to become the first 100% smart phone country. But in real terms, it counts for nothing, absolute nothing. Unless if there ‘s an olympic medal to accompany this achievement, i have missed the point.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      Bandwidth: Ooredoo is working on the throughput issue with locally cached content they’ll be mirroring on their servers, and they are surely pushing to hurry up new SMW4 submarine cable network connections that are expected in early 2015.

      Data costs: Its now $0.015 per MB and free Facebook on Ooredoo. At less than 2 cents per MB, I don’t see data costs as an issue.

      Fonts: Everyone was in agreement that there will be a truce between Unicode and Zawgyi by 2015, with the former winning. I say Unicode is better on several levels.

  4. Noel Dickover says:

    Wayan, if I’m reading the Ooredo page right, 500 kyats a day (51 cents) is 15 bucks a month. That’s $180 bucks a year in a country where the majority make less than $200 a year. How is the cost not a problem?

    It sounds like the same problem we see in many countries on the lower end of the development scale.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      You can buy Pay as you Go Internet for $0.025 / MB and I expect that Telenor will have even cheaper pricing.

      And while I greatly suspect any Myanmar stat (they haven’t had a census since 1983), the UN says the GNI per capita in 2011 was $1,144 while the World Bank doesn’t even try to calculate it.

      I think in the end, we really don’t know what the real wage in Myanmar is, but I bet the MNOs have invested in detailed market surveys to find out what the market will bear.

      • Noel Dickover says:

        Even if its $1,144, this is still a still like 15% of someone’s total income, and suggests the model there will be top-up cards (this is where the mobile banking seems to be going near as I can tell) sold by kids as we see in most developing countries.

        It also suggests to me anyways that we will see the same pressures to reduce monthly costs there. I think a lot of the unknowns will be answered by the ecosystem that emerges to support this. Will we see lots of internet cafes emerge, for instance? So much of the city life there revolves around the street food scene – I sort of wonder what sorts of internet cafe mashups will emerge in that environment.

        In any event, I agree with you that its currently the only country I know where over 90% of the phones are smart phone based, so you’d expect the social pressures will all point to people wanting to “keep up with the joneses”, so I would agree that 5 years out we should see a higher percentage there than other similar countries from an economic/culture standpoint.