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 cheapWhile 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.