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The FLOATING mobile phone shop on the edge of the Internet

Reg man splashes down amid Asia's smartphone shift

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The edge of the internet

Was my experience typical?

Yes and no, according to Daniel Pang, IDC Asia/Pacific's ASEAN research manager.

Pang classified Cambodia as a country whose economic development lags behind other south-east Asian nations like Indonesia, Vietnam and The Philippines, but ahead of laggards like Laos.

Throughout the region, he says mobile phone adoption and the move from feature phones to smartphones “is completely driven by economic growth.” Cambodia doesn't have it, Indonesia et al do, and the former is therefore dominated by feature phones.

IDC is yet to study Cambodia, but Pang said your correspondent's account of Metfone's rural store accords with previous patterns in other nations in the region, which quickly adopt feature phones because they become affordable and for the simple human need of liking a chat.

There's a productivity and business angle too: Pang believes that a phone call to gain information on simple things like market prices for goods can make a big difference to a farmer or fisherman.

That's certainly the case in Prek Toal, because one of the things it is hard to do in a floating village is grow fresh vegetables. My guide said locals therefore try to get to town every week or two to stock up, at a price of about $10 per person for the round trip. If locals can know they'll get a better deal for their goods on arrival at local markets, they'll be able to time their shopping trips judiciously which will mean the phones pay for themselves in short order.

That may be an obvious use for mobiles in a remote village, but Pang said it won't be long before Cambodia moves to smartphones.

That shift's already started, according to market-watcher GfK, who provided us with the table below showing phone sales trends in four developing nations.

  Bangladesh Bangladesh Indonesia Indonesia Kampuchea (Cambodia) Kampuchea (Cambodia) Vietnam Vietnam
Handset sales expressed by per cent of market June 2011 - May 2012 June 2012 - May 2013 June 2011 - May 2012 June 2012 - May 2013 June 2011 - May 2012 June 2012 - May 2013 June 2011 - May 2012 June 2012 - May 2013
Mobilephones 98.6 95.4 77.4 70.3 76.5 64.3 89.1 71.9
Smartphones 1.4 4.6 22.6 29.7 23.5 35.7 10.9 28.1
Sales value as per cent of market June 2011 - May 2012 June 2012 - May 2013 June 2011 - May 2012 June 2012 - May 2013 June 2011 - May 2012 June 2012 - May 2013 June 2011 - May 2012 June 2012 - May 2013
Mobilephones 91.7 81 39.7 29.2 29.4 16.3 60.7 33.8
Smartphones 8.3 19 60.3 70.8 70.6 83.7 39.3 66.2
Average selling price in $US June 2011 - May 2012 June 2012 - May 2013 June 2011 - May 2012 June 2012 - May 2013 June 2011 - May 2012 June 2012 - May 2013 June 2011 - May 2012 June 2012 - May 2013
Mobilephones 38 34 55 42 49 36 55 43
Smartphones 234 166 285 243 376 335 289 215

Pang said the killer app for the more expensive handsets is social media. Facebook, he said, is wildly popular in South East Asia for the same reasons it's wildly popular elsewhere. Other social networks in local languages also rack up the visits.

Cambodian carriers offer Facebook-over-SMS, but Pang says as wealth increases locals will want smartphones. Feature phones will be handed down to parents or others with more modest communications needs. Younger and more connected folk will buy no-name Chinese smartphones, the region's dominant variety of handset.

Many will also buy tablets with 3G radios, a class of device Pang said accounts for about three per cent of tablet use worldwide but around 20 per cent in South-East Asia. Locals skip PCs, he feels, and go straight to tablets when they want more than the mobile phone experience.

Still to come, Pang said, is a local ecosystem of apps. The likes of Google, Apple and Samsung are starting to engage local developers, he said, and businesses are emerging with their own app stores.

When they get up and running, those stores will find a ready audience and, if my own experience is anything to go by, networks well and truly capable of satisfying customers.

My last exploration of Cambodian mobile telephony came with the purchase of a SIM, from local carrier QB. $US3 bought me 60MB of data and 10 minutes of international calling time. Only full-sized SIMs were on sale, but the store possessed punches to reduce them to either micro-or-nano sizes.

Service was excellent: calls to Australia went through in seconds, were exceptionally clear and suffered no lag or echo. Internet access throughout Siem Reap was swift and plentiful.

Prek Toal may not be on the map today and is scarcely on the internet. Keeping it off looks to be impossible. ®

Bootnotes

I visited Prek Toal on a recent (entirely self-funded) holiday in Cambodia and stayed a night in the village on a tour organised by eco-tourism outfit Osmose. I shan't forget the experience in a hurry, for all the right reasons.

*The existence of legal digital music services is notable, as I also spotted plenty of pirated music and movies sold at market stalls.

One store even offered a hard drive filled with myriad movies and music. Prices started at $US150 and rose with drives' capacity. The store was almost certainly aiming at western tourists: PCs sell for western prices in Cambodia and would be very expensive for many locals.

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