Digital/tech in Thailand in 2011

Thanks to a self-induced digital hiatus for the New Year, I’m only just returning to blogging now and – although a week or so later than most – here’s a look at some of the topics  I believe will be important for technology and digital in Thailand in 2011.

There is no crystal ball gazing here as I anticipate seeing many of the same trends that shaped last year continuing into 2011.

1. More competitive, growing smartphone industry

BlackBerry dominates the smartphone environment in Thailand across a wide-range of demographics including high-school and university students, young professionals, businessmen and beyond.

Android is set to offer stiffer competition in Thailand – as it has done already across Asia as a whole – alongside Apple, which now has more than three generations of devices released in country, challenging BlackBerry on price whilst matching the standard features that a smartphone can offer.

It seems that BlackBerry’s continual growth will be cut into, but I doubt that Android will emerge as the leading smartphone brand in Thailand this year and I do believe RIM’s BlackBerry devices will continue to grow – albeit at a lesser rate – as they target new demographics and look to introduce structured financial payment plans as are currently available for the iPhone in Thailand.

It worth remembering, at this stage, just how niche the smartphone market remains in Thailand, and throughout much of Asia too, as this article from The Nation points out – although frustrating it is not sourced making it difficult to verify:

Unofficially, Thailand’s market for smart phones is believed to have reached about 1.2 million units, which is about 18 per cent of the total mobile-phone market. Huge demand is expected to see the smart-phone segment grow by 100 per cent in 2011 to represent about 30 per cent of all mobile-phone sales. By 2012, half of all mobile phones sold in Thailand will be smart phones.

It seems clear that the smartphone industry will continue to growth in the country, but at what rate?

2. Progress on 3G

While I’m not suggesting that full public 3G will be rolled out this year, I am optimistic that ‘progress’ will be made – whether that be an agreement between the carriers and all parties concerned to move forward, the process of an actual spectrum auction…or more.

I don’t share some media’s scepticism that this year will be another failure for 3G in Thailand,simply because Thailand really can’t afford to fail once again. Embarking on a new decade without something that has become a standard technology across almost all of Asia is unthinkable given that many countries are looking to 3.5 and 4G technologies already. The government and all parties need to progress the issue, particularly given the sheer amount of time that the issue has been bubbling in the country. As many leading figures agree, this year will be ‘challenging’ for the Thai telecommunications industry.

3. Growth in internet access fueled by mobile

Regardless of whether 3G rolls out, 2010 saw a phenomenal uptake of mobile internet subscribers with a huge increase reported (though I cannot find the link) in the Thai media illustrating the impact that the nation’s growing interest in gadgets, and particularly smartphones, has made in conjunction with the growing thirst for social media services.

Fixed line interest is likely to grow but on more modest terms. As I’ve often outlined, a mobile phone and internet tariff is far more affordable and accessible than hardware (laptop or PC) and a fixed contract landline service, while poor infrastructure often effects the availability and speed of fixed internet across the country.

4. Growth in social networking

A fairly obvious one but worth stating nonetheless.

Facebook membership numbers have risen from 2.5 million to more than 6.5 from January to December, making Thailand one of the world’s fastest growing markets for the social network giant. This has brought with it positive exchanges in information, but there is an ugly underbelly at times and the government remains committed to investigating ways of controlling new media services.

Given that Hi5, Thailand’s initially dominant social network, claimed to have hit 6 million registered members at its peak, it seems likely that in this era of greater awareness and usage of social networks, Facebook can go on and (at least) reach the 10 million mark by the end of 2011.

Twitter, although without official figures (though my estimate puts it between 300,000 and 500,000 registered members in Thailand) is likely to continue to grow as will much of the interest and exchanges which take place on its platform in the country.

This forecast of growth comes at a time when many believe Facebook and Twitter are rapidly reaching their points of saturation in western markets, developing areas like Asia and South America, in particular, are clear focuses for growth as Facebook, for one, looks towards its next milestone of 1 billion registered members.

Much of the key to increased social networking in Thailand – Asia, and other developing global areas – revolves around increasing the accessibility of the internet (and tackling the digital divide) with mobile touted as the primary internet access point for many new users.

5. Greater adoption of social media marketing by business

As common sense dictates, increased social media numbers and usage patterns will make the medium all the more appealing for marketing purposes for businesses in Thailand.

Of course, social media marketing is its own breed of communications and is not simply a rehash of tradition marketing on a new platform, so digital media agencies and experts in Thailand will find greater prominence and the industry – which is still focused on its potential – will become more of  reality with more firms looking to leverage social networks.

Thus far, social media marketing has predominantly come from large companies with big budgets and a network of other marketings engaging digital media strategies, or smaller, boutique firms that are able to dabble in new media without excess marketing demands or corporate issues.

The efforts of the likes of the US Embassy, for example, which is using social networks to connect with its citizens in both Thai and English, is demonstrating the kind of success that can be achieved by government agencies, fellow embassies and the wider businesses audience.

6. Growth in the importance of new media as a news tool

Thailand has already witnessed the potential of social media as a news tool, with Twitter and Facebook established at the de facto methods of keeping up with goings on during the political protests in Bangkok earlier in the year.

Although it may not boast the large user base which Facebook enjoys in Thailand, Twitter is an important tool because of the audience it attracts. Online influencers, journalists, bloggers and activists, make great use of the service to identify news, make connections and spread content.

With Thailand’s increasingly tighter media freedom issues plaguing discussion of key issues, Twitter was the place to learn about ‘outlawed’ information such as Wikileaks which appeared in few mainstream Thai media, such is the press’ inability to report sensitive issues.

Social networks aside, blogs are playing an increasingly important role dissecting information which is often poorly analysed in the media. Tanks to the booming interest in social media such blogs and new media outlets are better able to promote and distribute their content online using Twitter, Facebook and other link promoting services.

However, blogs fall down as their susceptible to government censorship in a way which social networks are not. The Thai government can block a website with little difficulty, but the public outcry in response to a block on Facebook or Twitter makes it an unlikely option for the time being.

7. Emergence of group buying sites (and e-commerce generally)

I wrote about the emergence of Groupon-clone group buying sites for CNN Go (here) in September as the service has been the break through start-up on the year, raising huge amounts of funds and attracting constant speculation of a bid from Google.  However, the emergence has been slower in Thailand due to a number of reasons including language (Thai is a minority language in global terms) and also the fact that the country is not a primary target market.

However, the emergence of Ensogo and Sanook initial commitment to exploring the group buying industry (buoyed by investment from Chinese online media giant Tencent) suggests 2011 could be the year that group buying finds major traction in the market, particularly if Facebook – which dominates the Thai social media scene – implements a Groupon-rival service as has been suggested.

8. Location gets (more) relevant

Foursquare has been active in Thailand for more than a year and, despite issues with authenticity of check-ins, maps and other key parts of the ‘game’ aspect of the social network, it has developed a loyal though not mainstream following.

Facebook has introduced its location-based service however it is not yet released in Thailand. Should this changed next year, and Facebook Places come to Bangkok, we can expect a huge increase in interest in location…which – like the increase in social networks – provides a platform for marketing/advertising or business in general to incentive the service and give it some relevancy.

For example, a promotion which gives the first 50 users logging into Central stores 50% of their purchases would generate great interest amongst consumers. However, for now there are few examples of this and most are of little significance.

I’m going out on a limb predicting location will get relevant but, as I wrote a feature for Director looking at how businesses could use location in Thailand more than a year ago, it is high time that the potential began to be realised in the country.

9. Beginnings of a loss of interest in BBM

I’m sticking my neck out on this one predicting that Thailand’s interest in BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) and all things BlackBerry will dwindle this year.

As mentioned under the increased competition within the smartphone industry, I feel that BlackBerry – having established a fortress in Thailand – are the ones to be shot at and, as smartphone purchases are likely to increase once again next year, the emergence of Android and other challenges may affect the growth of RIM’s BB in 2011.

That said, I do believe BlackBerry can extend its position in Thailand this year as it targets upcountry markets and looks to get into new demographics outside of Bangkok’s existing smartphone users.

If Android and its competitive price points and array of devices challenges BlackBerry’s product line-up as it has done in other regions, BlackBerry’s growth in Thailand may be tempered to an extent. With BBM like the glue which holds the BlackBerry empire in Thailand together – many Thais use BBM more than SMS or even voice – a rival in new smartphone growth markets could hurt BBM’s growth which could impact on BlackBerry’s position in the Thai market in the longer term.

I don’t expect BBM to disappear over night but I do believe that a loss of interest could start this year.

10. Huge digital divide remains

The emphasis placed on Bangkok and other major cities has left Thailand with a hugely divided population based on culture, politics, lifestyle and finances. Many of these factors, and money in particular, play a huge part in creating a huge digital divide between the people of Thailand.

Western countries have a level of affluence which gives most the freedom to afford access to the internet through a fixed connection, with many enjoying mobile internet too. As I’ve already stated above, Thailand, and much of Southeast Asia, is financially more polarised and goods which retail for similar prices as in the west are out of the financial reach of many.

Mobile is the great hope for increasing internet penetration worldwide, but even in Thailand the cost of an internet-enabled smartphone and the commitment of a post-paid tariff can be beyond the limits of many.

The Thai government has commissioned research and action groups to look into addressing the digital divide as increased internet penetration has the potential to enable greater communication, with the hope of lessening some of the social issues which have affected Thailand of late and prompting understanding. Then there are also the education possibilities of the internet, and other potential benefits for connecting new users.

Blue sky thinking, perhaps, but a digital divide like Thailand’s makes the ideology unthinkable in reality. Though we are likely to see greater smartphone uptake in provincial areas, I don’t envisaged Thailand’s digital divide narrowing by any significant margin this year.

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There are a number of topics not included such as censorship (it will be interesting to see if the we blocks made using the emergency powers during the State of Emergency are lifted now the SoE has been), the iPad/tablet computing and Thai start-ups & the national tech industry while all business and IT topics – Cloud Computing seems to appear on everyone’s list – have been omitted too though they are not out of my thoughts.

I’d be interested in hearing thoughts in response and predictions from readers for the what is in store in the new year.