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Early Stage

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.

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 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.”

Development Dream

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. — 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.

Changing Society

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.

“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:

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.