Smartphone maker HTC Corp (宏達電) opened its first store in Myanmar yesterday, seeking to gain a foothold in one of Asia’s last untapped markets.
The shop was inaugurated in Yangon by HTC chief executive officer Peter Chou (周永明), who was born and raised in the Southeast Asian country, but left to study and work in Taiwan more than 30 years ago, company officials said.
The move comes as global corporate giants from Coca-Cola Co to General Electric Co line up to enter the impoverished, but resource-rich nation, which is emerging from decades of military rule and international isolation.
The HTC executive hopes the launch will be a major boost, to both a backward technology sector in Myanmar and to his company’s share of one of the few untapped mobile markets, through sales of a phone that locals can use out of the box.
Cellphone and computer users in Myanmar normally have to install fonts in the Burmese language, a process that is cumbersome, often invalidates the device’s warranty and has slowed innovation and the embrace of technology, Chou said.
Given this, HTC has teamed up with a local distributor and a software developer to customize Google Inc’s Android operating system so that devices can display fonts in local languages and feature an intuitive Burmese-language onscreen keyboard, Chou said.
“You don’t have to spend two months to learn how to type [with] it,” he added in an interview before the launch. “You just type it. We want to give people here a computing device they don’t have to learn [to use]. They just try it, they just use it, they just get it.”
Burmese IT experts say that while the country’s alphabet is no more complex than some other Asian scripts, a failure to agree on how to apply an international standard for language symbols called Unicode to existing versions of Burmese-language computer font has made it difficult to program the language into software. As a result, Burmese-language Web pages and apps are often unreadable.
Myanmar has one of the lowest cellphone penetration rates in the world, with only 3 percent of the population owning a phone in 2011, World Bank data show. In comparison, 56 percent of people in Bangladesh have a mobile phone.
When IT enthusiasts met last year for Barcamp Yangon, a conference on the future of technology in the country, much of the discussion revolved around issues such as font programming, participants said. With at least two competing types of font software available, there is still no consensus on Burmese-language programming.
The problem is worse on smartphones, said Soe Ngwe Ya, the general manager of KMD, HTC’s Burmese distribution partner for the new phones.
In order to install such fonts on mobile devices users must first “root” the phone, effectively bypassing the manufacturer’s controls on customizing the phone’s operating system. That often invalidates any warranty.
“It’s a major issue,” Soe Ngwe Ya said.
HTC also hopes it can claw back some ground from Samsung, its biggest competitor in phones running the Android system, which has established a first-mover advantage in Myanmar. It has at least two distributors for its handsets and its advertisements are visible around Yangon.
Soe Ngwe Ya said KMD will act as HTC’s distributor, open a flagship store and service HTC users, while Chou said that Burmese-language fonts and keyboard are currently only available on HTC devices.
“While sometimes you can be idealistic, the first thing you have to show the people is something to get excited about,” Chou said.