Southeast Asia has been a trade crossroads for thousands of years, and now is a digital crossroads for internet and mobile innovation as well.
Some local markets are large enough or resource-rich to nurture homegrown industry giants that are expanding across the region and outside as well. New players from South and East Asia are moving into the region, along with market leaders from the US and Europe.
Though Singapore is a small market, the government and universities are actively promoting mobile innovation and facilitating digital testbeds. Singapore is regarded as the most mobile payment-ready nation in the world, and is also home to a number of regional incubators and accelerators for mobile startups.
"With high smartphone penetration, Singapore is a great market to test interest in both iPhone and Android applications," says Chris Chandler, co-founder of MobileMonday Singapore.
Indonesia is the region's largest mobile market, and is the BlackBerry capital of Asia. Mobile marketing firms are experimenting with cutting-edge augmented reality (AR) apps. But the government does not yet have systematic large-scale plans for accelerating mobile innovation.
Malaysia has an active mobile developer community, and is both a testbed and market for mobile applications. Malaysia is also a "fantastic testing ground for the huge Indonesian market", says Janny Paul, organiser of MobileMonday in Kuala Lumpur.
The Philippines has a strong consumer appetite for mobile payments and remittances. In terms of access to devices and the internet, Filipino children are ahead of their peers in more developed countries. "SMS-based services are still key to success in the Philippines," says Charo Nuguid, co-founder of MobileMonday Manila.
Thailand has bounced back from the impact of the 2011 floods, and Thais spend more time on mobile devices than on TV or landline internet. "Thais are ready to spend three times their average monthly salary for a phone," observes Ville Kulmala, the organiser of MobileMonday Bangkok. The Thai government is also rolling out one of the world's largest educational tablet programmes with one million Chinese-made units to be ordered.
Regarded by many as the New Asian Tiger, Vietnam has a population of 88 million with a large and young workforce and increasing prosperity. Mobiles are playing an increasingly important role in their purchasing cycles.
Many parts of Southeast Asia are not just "mobile first" but "mobile only". For such users, mobile is more important as a medium than landlines, fixed-line internet, TV and newspapers. Mobiles are also being creatively used by social entrepreneurs and activists in the region, eg. mobile apps for mute people in Indonesia, and citizen journalism in Malaysia.
Though smartphones are hogging the media attention, there is still plenty of room for feature phones and basic SMS-related services. Android-based smartphones are becoming cheaper and could become a game-changer in the region.
Southeast Asia is now home to not just a large mobile subscriber base but also a number of innovation networks, accelerator programmes, incubation facilities, competitions and awards for mobile startups. These include the MobileMonday network in the six key Asean countries, Clearbridge Accelerator, NUS Entrepreneurship Centre, NTU Ventures and Echelon.
Innovation networks and meetups have been active in Southeast Asia since 2006, especially in the capital cities of the six key mobile markets: Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Singapore, Bangkok and Hanoi.
Dozens of mobile startups are emerging in the region, but factors such as language (which can increase costs of localisation and globalisation) and high revenue share by operators come in the way of scaling up startups.
Sustainability of the innovation ecosystem requires the right blend of bottom-up entrepreneurial energy and top-down facilitation of investment policies and infrastructure, and both can be found in varying amounts across the diverse southeast Asian region.
Dr Madanmohan Rao is the research projects director of MobileMonday (www.mobilemonday.net) and editor of the Asia-Pacific Internet Handbook. He is the author of the recently released "Mobile Southeast Asia Report 2012" (http://bit.ly/MCiHDl). Follow him on Twitter @MadanRao
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