Myan­mar tech wiz­ard helps the coun­try em­brace the in­ter­net age

The Myanmar Times - Weekend - - News - HTET SHINE htet­[email protected]

KO Htoo Myint Naung clearly re­mem­bered his days as a stu­dent at the Com­puter Uni­ver­sity. At about 6:30 in the morn­ing, he and other stu­dents would be jok­ing with each other: “Here comes 41-years-old, here come 42-years-old”, as their school bus, which usu­ally served as a fu­neral coach later in the day, would have the name of the dead per­son and his/her age at­tached to the ve­hi­cle.

“We made fun by guess­ing and bet­ting on the age of the de­ceased on the la­bel, just like bet­ting in the il­le­gal two-digit lot­tery num­bers,” he said laugh­ing.

Dur­ing those times, one SIM card cost at least K3 mil­lion (US$1900) each; there was no in­ter­net, no read­ily avail­able books and worse, there was no stable power sup­ply.

“I never heard of the word “startup”, nei­ther have I heard of the word ‘en­tre­pre­neur’. There was no de­vel­op­ment. Ev­ery­thing was at a stand­still. The word ‘fund­ing’ was as alien as the words ‘startup’ and ‘en­trepreneurs’,” he re­called.

He re­mem­bered bor­row­ing a 1000page soft­ware de­vel­op­ment book from the Bri­tish Coun­cil li­brary and hav­ing to read it on the school bus while on the way to his uni­ver­sity.

Ko Htoo Myint Naung ad­mit­ted be­ing en­vi­ous of the present gen­er­a­tion of IT stu­dents, who have greater ac­cess to cheap mo­bile phones, stable In­ter­net con­nec­tion and steady power sup­ply.

“It is dif­fer­ent now. The sit­u­a­tion is much bet­ter to pro­duce a prod­uct and pen­e­trate mar­ket. And there are in­sti­tu­tions to help you do that to­day. We are able to ap­ply our ideas more quickly than be­fore,” he said.

But he said it was those try­ing times that de­vel­oped his cre­ativ­ity and opened op­por­tu­ni­ties to jump­start his en­try to the world of in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy.

His first big break came when the gov­ern­ment per­mit­ted con­trolled en­try of mo­bile phones in 2005 and the In­ter­net be­came avail­able in the coun­try. The lo­cal tech­nol­ogy was not de­vel­oped then and there were only key­pad mo­bile phones.

As a bud­ding soft­ware de­vel­oper from the Uni­ver­sity of Com­puter Stud­ies, he tried his hand at de­vel­op­ing an ap­pli­ca­tion that would make avail­able the use of Myan­mar lan­guage in mo­bile phones.

“The ap­pli­ca­tion I built be­came a hit among many mo­bile phone users. It be­came widely used, so I needed to es­tab­lish a com­pany to sell and dis­trib­ute it,” he said.

The ap­pli­ca­tion be­came known as the Myan­mar SMS ap­pli­ca­tion, and he named the com­pany he formed as “Tech­no­ma­tion.”

From then on he never looked back and plunged into the brave new world of dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy in the coun­try. Aside from sell­ing and distribut­ing his ap­pli­ca­tion, he thought of his com­pany as pro­vid­ing other tech prod­ucts for the con­sumers.

But he needed cap­i­tal for his ven­ture and be­ing a tech startup in a coun­try that had been closed to the out­side world was a her­culean chal­lenge.

“When I need money for in­vest­ment, I had to turn to peo­ple giv­ing out loans. If the wealthy peo­ple want to in­vest in the com­pany, I had to re­lin­quish half of my shares. It was like that in the past. There were many more prob­lems for IT busi­nesses back then,” he said.

“Back then, we could not turn back and would cost a for­tune if some­thing went wrong and so, I had to make choices with ut­most care,” he re­called.

Ko Htoo Myint Naung, how­ever, was not a per­son who would back down from any chal­lenge. He knew he had a whole new op­por­tu­nity opened up for him and for the coun­try and would do what­ever it takes to seize it.

The rest is his­tory. Tech­no­ma­tion has pro­duced Burmese SMS, Mes­sen­ger app (in­stant mes­sen­ger like what­sapp, google talk, but us­ing SMS as com­mu­ni­ca­tion in­stead of in­ter­net), dic­tio­nary, di­rec­tory, San Sar Ni Bo (for­tune telling) Apps and so on.

“After I sold mo­bile apps, I got some money. We also bought a car but I didn’t know where I was on the road. It was too trou­ble­some to drive and there was no Google Map yet. There were many sat­nav (satel­lite nav­i­ga­tion) de­vices avail­able in for­eign coun­tries but not in Myan­mar. I re­ally wanted to make one. When I asked peo­ple about it, ev­ery­one said they were hav­ing the same prob­lem as I have, un­able to nav­i­gate through the streets. It was one prob­lem that ev­ery new driver had,” Ko Htoo Myint Naung said.

For ev­ery prob­lem is an op­por­tu­nity. Deep in his heart he knew that he could come up with some­thing that could guide mo­torists in nav­i­gat­ing through the streets in Yan­gon and Myan­mar.

Be­fore long, Tech­no­ma­tion was able to pro­duce the Po­larstar Nav­i­ga­tion De­vice, avail­able in Myan­mar lan­guage. It’s not just app this time, in­stead, it is a com­bi­na­tion of hard­ware de­vice and a soft­ware in­side which can be in­stalled in ve­hi­cles. Street names and places can be searched on it in Myan­mar and English lan­guages and it can give direc­tions in voice in Myan­mar and in English.

“Po­larstar means Du Won Kyal. I named it Po­larstar as it will be the guide for car driv­ers just like the ac­tual north­ern po­lar star guid­ing sea ves­sels while travers­ing the vast ocean,” he said

In cre­at­ing the Po­larstar Nav­i­ga­tion De­vice, he strug­gled tech­ni­cally and fi­nan­cially for over two years but Ko Htoo Myint Naung was able to de­liver what the con­sumers wanted and kept his in­vestors happy.

“It was in 2008 or 2009 when I first came up with it. Now, it is al­most ten years. At that time, I pro­duced Po­larstar GPS. It was very dif­fi­cult to sell. The peo­ple haven’t used GPS for direc­tions be­fore and so I tried a lot to share knowl­edge to the buy­ers. They are so wor­ried,” he said.

At the time he cre­ated the Po­larstar, the city Nay Pyi Taw emerged and it was a good chance for him to show­case his de­vice. He tried hard for Po­lar Star to work in Yan­gon and also in Nay Pyi Taw. Cur­rently, Po­larstar can be used all over the coun­try and it is now in its 13th se­ries. Thou­sands of peo­ple are cur­rently us­ing it.

After Po­larstar, Tech­no­ma­tion’s next ap­pli­ca­tion is Star­tracker, a de­vice cre­ated to en­able com­pa­nies to man­age their ve­hi­cle move­ments in real time.

“Po­larstar and Star­track are the de­vices cre­ated in in­te­gra­tion with the tech­nol­ogy that is be­ing used to solve the prob­lems that we face ev­ery day,” Ko Htoo Myint Naung said.

He said that at present he was fas­ci­nated with the idea that Po­larstar would be able to steer the ve­hi­cles au­to­mat­i­cally in the fu­ture. The lat­est ver­sion of Po­larstar al­ready has a cam­era and Ar­ti­fi­cial In­tel­li­gence (AI) soft­ware. It warns driv­ers when it sees po­ten­tial dan­gers on the road. We need more re­search into this AI where Po­larstar can ac­tu­ally take over con­trol of driv­ing.

While there might be a slow­down in busi­ness at present, Ko Htoo Myint Naung, re­mained un­daunted of the fu­ture and be­lieves that tech-based com­pa­nies, such as Tech­no­ma­tion would play a key role in lead­ing the coun­try’s de­vel­op­ment.

“As I’ve al­ready faced some hard­ships in the field, I’m well aware of the op­por­tu­ni­ties that may ap­pear in this kind of sit­u­a­tion,” he said. “If a busi­ness is more com­pet­i­tive, there are more chances for suc­cess.”

Ko Htoo Myint Naung be­lieve that the only limit to busi­ness op­por­tu­ni­ties in imag­i­na­tion. If a per­son can dream of some­thing he just needs to work hard to make that dream come true.

Quot­ing a word from the wise, he said, “A win­ner never quits. A quit­ter never wins.”

‘As I’ve al­ready faced some hard­ships in the field, I’m well aware of the op­por­tu­ni­ties that may ap­pear in this kind of sit­u­a­tion.’

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