When Apple guru Steve Jobs died two years ago, the world paid tribute to a man who helped change society. Technological innovation is also transforming Cambodia. Ellie Dyer meets the tech enthusiasts who are bringing a new way of life to the country. Photography by Conor Wall.
At the dawn of the millennium, while still at college, Be Chantra didn’t use a phone. Nowadays the affable technology enthusiast is a key force behind BarCamp, a rapidly expanding festival that helps forward-thinking firms and entrepreneurs connect with the Kingdom’s pool of young tech talent.
The event, currently held in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap and set to expand across the country this year, allows thousands of students to expand their skills by meeting working professionals, while getting a taste of what it takes to work in Cambodia’s Silicon Valley.
“We have some Khmer teams developing applications to sell… People like to do it and see it as a start-up business,” explains Be. “Maybe they have an idea of becoming ‘technopreneurs’.”
A Rising Tide
From business practices to information gathering and social networking, modern technology — thanks to men such as Steve Jobs — is becoming essential in day-to-day life. Despite years of past turmoil and historically low internet penetration, Cambodia is no different.
As a technological revolution takes the world by storm, tablets and smartphones are becoming more commonplace. Rising incomes and cheaper phones are allowing a growing number of people to access the Internet via handheld devices.
“Smartphones are continuously gaining traction in Cambodia, following the world market trend, however of course from a much lower scale than in highly developed countries,” says Thomas Hundt, chief executive officer of Smart Mobile.
Hundt believes that such expansion is supported by the availability of lower-end models — costing $80 to $90 or even less — and fast and affordable mobile internet networks.
“Gadgets such as smartphones and tablets are becoming more and more popular even among kids,” says app developer and commercial manager of the IOSKhmer.com website Sok Ratha.
“If you ask kids today what they want, the answer probably is an iPad,” the developer adds, calling such devices an “extension of oneself“ and the “most convenient way” for people to connect to their friends.
Price is still a concern for many consumers and insiders say that the Cambodian smartphone market is dominated by phones working off Google’s Android platform rather than Apple’s iOS system, largely due to affordability.
“They like Apple and they like iPhones, but they don’t have the money to buy,” says Be. “It’s like you liking a Hummer, but you don’t have the money to buy [it], so you just buy a Camry.”
It is not just consumers who benefit from technological development. Experts say that international firms from countries such as France and South Korea are outsourcing software development work to the Kingdom.
Employing a labour force in a developing economy with a young demographic can make financial sense for big firms, but for students the rapidly growing global technology sector also represents opportunity.
Cambodian entrepreneurs who are able to develop software for mobile platforms can upload their products direct to online stores — such as Apple’s App Store and Google Play — opening up their work to a global distribution channel with the click of a button.
Good products, experts say, will bubble to the top, with worldwide consumers determining their success.
“More and more people are also interested in how to develop apps,” explains Sok. IOSKhmer.com — launched to provide free information and tutorials on the iOS platform in Khmer — has 10 apps, including a fortune telling tool, under its belt since March 2012.
But it is not only start-ups that are creating new products. Behind an unassuming exterior near Phnom Penh’s night market lies mobile solutions company Golden Gekko, which started locally in 2005 and has bases in London, New York and Barcelona.
Around 100 experts at its office are busy creating and testing software, and designing user experiences for leading brands around the world that have included Mango and Vodafone.
Golden Gekko director David Clicquennoi explains that Cambodians at the company can benefit from working with international experts who may have been employed in the nascent industry for up to 15 years.
“Eventually they will have that as well, and they will be able to take it and run with it,” he says.
The country is also jumping past other stages of technological development, creating an exciting experience for young graduates who have worked for a year of two as junior developers, testers or designers.
“We are really leading the way on these things. Mobile technology is such a new field. To get that started here we are really leap-frogging over a lot of other things that in other countries came first,” Clicquennoi explains. “People can come out of school now and just jump into mobile development, whereas for years and years desktop was the area where programers would focus.”
The industry shows no sign of slowing down. In the long term, Clicquennoi believes that gadgets could become more wearable or hidden in attire. Google is researching augmented reality glasses, while Apple is rumoured in the media to be experimenting with an iWatch.
“Right now we’re pretty content with the mobile device, we’re not quite ready to develop for that,” Clicquennoi says, adding that smartphones could get cheaper in Cambodia as consumers in western nations discard older models.
With progress comes change, and many experts observe that technology can transform the way that people interact. A quick peek into a coffee shop often shows patrons staring into screens, rather than at each other.
“Before they used text message, but now they use Whats App, Facebook to communicate and interact,” says Be. “Sometimes when they come for a coffee, they may talk less and put their feelings on their phone — I see a lot of that. It has changed the way we live now, especially for teenagers and young adults.”
We asked IT experts, tech enthusiasts, software developers and even a few AsiaLIFE staff members to share insider knowledge on what’s hot in the world of innovation and apps. From weird and wonderful to just plain useful, here’s what they recommend:
An Interactive Guide to Angkor
Written by Australian National University lecturer Dougald O’Reilly, this electronic book available on iPad explains the history of the temples at Angkor and features interactive, zoom-able maps. “Perhaps the most useful aspect of the guide is the audio. Angkor today can be a cacophony of different guides blaring into megaphones in many different languages,” says O’Reilly, who has conducted research in Cambodia since the 1990s and is director of conservation group Heritage Watch. An added bonus for frazzled visitors to the site, O’Reilly says, is narrator Professor Charles Higham whose “voice has been likened to that of Richard Attenborough and so is quite enjoyable to listen to.”
Health is often a major concern for international travellers. For those who want to be informed about potential risks in individual countries, International SOS has the answer. Its members can use the SOS app on iPhone, Android and Blackberry to receive handy health tips and warnings of potential flashpoints, such as demonstrations. “I entered Vietnam as my destination country in the app and it immediately gave me a medical alert for hand and mouth disease,” explains SOS employee Andy Bedard. “I continued reading the information and it gave me a complete explanation of the disease and how to take precautions to avoid catching it.”
Quest for Land
What would you do if you’d spent more than a decade photographing land issues in Cambodia yet didn’t want to compromise on the content? Sure, you could try to publish a book, but to do the subject any justice would require a coffee table book with 250 pages of glossy paper. That would likely be distributed in no more than about 20 bookshops worldwide — and probably none of those would be in Cambodia. Well if you are Magnum photographer John Vink, you get tech guru Robert Starkweather to build an iPad app, available from the iTunes store, which incorporates your 700 photographs plus 21,000 words by Phnom Penh journalist Robert Carmichael. For creative types like Vink, this route provides complete artistic control over the content and its presentation.
The sky at night is a dizzying display of shimmering stars that can seem like an indecipherable puzzle. But from the time of the ancient Greeks to the modern day, the heavens have been mapped. Google Sky Map, for Android, allows users to identify stars, constellations and planets by pointing their phone at the sky. It uses GPS, compass data and the date and time to pinpoint the heavens and explain its contents. Similar apps have been designed for iPhones and iPads.
Keen cyclist Gillian Sutherland may call herself probably “the least tech savvy person around”, but she credits one app — Google Maps — with changing her Cambodian experience. “My husband, Peter, and I love to head out of town at weekends to explore on two wheels the surrounding areas,” she says. “Many a time we have become hopelessly lost by venturing into new territory, cycling unexplored tracks or discovering that previously familiar trails have become unrecognisable as a result of seasonal flooding, road construction, soil erosion or development.” Google Maps, available on a variety of devices, has allowed the couple to track their location and navigate themselves back to civilization. “It has got us out of trouble many times,” she says.
“Ex-footballer and TV host Gary Lineker once said that the best way to watch a bad game of football was on Ceefax, a BBC teletext information service,” says Anthony Perkins, chief executive officer of mobile money transfer company Wing. “In a digital age where most events are covered on TV live, or are available soon after via various video streaming websites, one particular medium seems to have been forgotten — the radio,” he adds. The fan of the medium recommends free app TuneIn, which allows users of a range of devices including Android, iPhones and iPads to access 70,000 radio stations throughout the world via their phones.
After years of backing up files via rewritable DVDs, thumb drives and external hard drives — a process that can lead to losing the storage device or having it deteriorate in humid weather — expat Jo Bigham discovered the cloud storage system Carbonite. “The central idea of Carbonite is that it offers a simple and automatic online backup solution for home users. After paying an annual fee and installing the Carbonite software, my files are now backed up each time I turn my computer on,” she says. The system available from www.carbonite.com provides unlimited storage, sends reminder emails, and is, according to Bigham, easy to use.
Khmer Talking Number & Khmer Market Price
Blogger Sok Pongsametrey recommends several Cambodia-specific apps built for those who want to keep their finger on the pulse. Khmer Market Price – available on Google Play – gives users a heads up on market prices by offering information from popular shops in Phnom Penh on the cost of items including phones, tablets and gold. “Of course, I still suggest users look at the details of the product and price for each shop, or more, before buying,” Sok says. Another useful app for expats who have yet to grasp the language is Khmer Talking Number. The Android app pronounces numbers aloud in Khmer, therefore reducing the stress of giving out addresses, phone numbers or market haggling.
Fun & lifestyle
My Fitness Pal & Tabata Timer
There are many apps tailored for fitness fanatics, but Phnom Penh-based personal trainer and nutritionist Maria Ahlberg recommends My Fitness Pal, available for Android, iPhone, Blackberry and iPad, as an aid for weight loss and fitness improvement. The app allows users to log their meals and exercise sessions. “This is a calorie counter, nutrition database and exercise log tool,” Ahlberg explains. Another app —Tabata Timer —allows users to mix in their music while interval training in the gym or at home. It times exercises and alerts users of when to take the next move.
Apple’s Airport Express and Apple TV, both WiFi devices a little bigger than a pack of cards, can be used to set up a home network that allows music and movies to be streamed wirelessly around the house, says Stephen Higgins, a board member of anti-human trafficking NGO SISHA. The network can then be controlled via an iPhone or iPad by using an app called Remote. “So I can be lying in bed and use my iPhone to access the iTunes library downstairs, and have it play on speakers in the bedroom, or anywhere else in the house for that matter,” he explains.
ChakKumPy & Sim Feng Shui
Cambodian app developer IOSKhmer is tapping into a market for digital fortune telling with two free apps. ChakKumPy allows users to read ancient palm leaf texts in order to predict the future in both Khmer and English with the press of a button. The developers call the practice “long respected and popular among Khmer Buddhist followers.” Meanwhile, Sim Feng Shui, taps into another common belief — the importance of numbers —to allow users to evaluate if their phone number will bring them luck or not.
“Living in Cambodia can make it difficult to stay current on the ever-changing film and TV industry,” says expat Rachael Felsing, who has found a tool to keep up to date with Hollywood. IMDb — the popular and authoritative source for movie, TV and celebrity content — has an app for iPhone, iPad and Android. “I use it all the time when buying DVDs to make sure I am getting the most recent season or the highest-rated films,” she says. “So, next time you are sweating in the market with a sad little handwritten list, remember to download the free app.”
If you’re stuck in a tedious conversation or a bad date without an obvious exit strategy, technology has the answer. With the discreet press of a button Excuse Me — a free app available on iTunes — can make a fake call to your phone in 30 seconds or less. The program makes the call look realistic, with ring tones and screen displays to match those of your phone. When you pick up, a garbled voice speaks loudly. All that’s left is for you to make up a suitable excuse for the ‘vital’ phone call and scarper.