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4669Mecca for Gadget Makers - Feer, China

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  • Zafar Khan
    Aug 2, 2004
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      Mecca for Gadget Makers

      Electronics makers are turning to Islam by developing
      special devices for Muslims. The challenge in this
      potentially lucrative market is to avoid offending
      Muslim sensibilities

      By Jeremy Wagstaff/JAKARTA and SINGAPORE
      Issue cover-dated August 05, 2004


      WHEN SOUTH KOREAN appliances giant LG Electronics was
      looking for a way to catch up with its competitors
      selling gadgets to the Islamic world, it turned to

      Seeking an edge over its rivals, LGE hit on packing
      features into a cellphone to help Muslims fulfil their
      daily prayer obligations. The most obvious way:
      determining the direction of Ka'aba, the House of
      Allah in Mecca. So LGE's G5300 cellphone, marketed
      last September in the Middle East, features a dangling
      compass which, after setting it to north and inputting
      some local information, enables the user to pinpoint
      the direction in which to pray. The phone, says LGE's
      assistant public-relations manager Karen Park, has
      been a hit and an upgraded model went on sale last

      LGE is not alone. Technology companies are waking up
      to the global consumer potential of more than 1
      billion Muslims. Dubai-based mobile-telecommunications
      company Ilkone in April launched its Ilkone i800, a
      $400 phone that recites the Islamic call to prayer,
      provides prayer times for more than 5,000 cities and
      has a digital compass indicating the direction of
      Mecca. Korea-based PenMan Corp., a wholly owned
      subsidiary of Hosan Corp., which makes automatic doors
      and vacuum toilets for trains, has found a niche
      selling a range of hand-held electronic devices for
      Muslims. They include a $120 digital version of the
      Koran in Arabic and English with full recordings of
      the Holy Book and earphones and a digital compass
      indicating the direction of Mecca, complete with
      alarms for prayer times in 250 cities.

      While the Middle East is a promising market, sizeable
      Islamic populations in Asia are also potentially
      lucrative. LGE's upgraded model, the F7100, will go on
      sale in Indonesia--which has the world's largest
      Muslim population--and Malaysia later this year.
      Ilkone recently set up a Singapore subsidiary to
      market its i800 across Southeast Asia. PenMan already
      has offices in Singapore and distributors around the

      On-line retail outlets are also sprouting up.
      Malaysia-based TravellingMuslim.com, for example,
      offers a Prayer Watch, which gives prayer times, a
      Qiblat Direction Finder that shows the direction to
      Mecca, and an Electronic Tasbih, which counts prayer

      It's too early to say whether this first wave of
      Islamic-oriented products will spur more gadgets aimed
      at Muslim consumers. LGE, for one, says it has no
      current plans for more models. And some companies
      privately acknowledge that such gadgets may not appeal
      to all Muslims, as some prefer to keep their religion
      in more traditional forms or don't want to parade
      their beliefs in public.

      Still, there's a sign that the gadgets are catching
      on: Cheap Chinese-made copies of some of PenMan's
      range of Islamic gadgets are already appearing on the
      market, says overseas-marketing manager Lee Rince.

      But producing for the Muslim market presents pirate
      manufacturers with some unique problems. Making a
      gadget for Muslims is not just a question of ripping
      off a design and adding an Arabic logo.

      The biggest problem is ensuring you don't offend, says
      Rince: "The Koran is a very sensitive issue." The text
      and recitations must be checked for errors and any
      translation that could be controversial to any branch
      of Islam. Advertising also must be modest and adapted
      to local tastes. And packaging should be in keeping
      with the religious message of the content.

      To make sure it doesn't err, PenMan has sought seals
      of approval from the highest bodies of Islamic
      teaching, including the Al-Azhar Al-Sharif Islamic
      Research Academy in Cairo. Copies of the academy's
      letters approving the company's digital Koran product
      range as "essentially proper, acceptable and free from
      errors" are available to customers on request.

      Ilkone has gone a step further. After securing
      approval from Al-Azhar, it has dispatched
      representatives to ensure that its cellphone not only
      complies with telecommunications standards in Asia,
      but also meets the approval of local Islamic

      In Brunei, says Ilkone Asia's marketing director
      Andrew Pang in Singapore, members of the clergy are
      conducting random checks on the text of the Koran
      contained in the company's cellphone. Malaysian
      authorities, meanwhile, have asked for a printout of
      the Koran used in the phone. "If something is wrong
      with the product, we have to recall it and destroy
      it," says Pang. "So we are very careful."

      In fact, fears of offending Muslims may be overblown,
      says Mahmoud Moursi, an Egyptian expert on Islamic
      culture now lecturing at Central Michigan University.
      On a recent visit to Egypt, he says, he saw
      religion-oriented gadgets there that still haven't
      appeared in the United States. He bought a clock that
      wakes you up with recitations from the Koran. "These
      are nice things that really complement rather than
      contradict Islamic beliefs," Moursi says.

      Ma'ruf Amin, the head of the fatwa committee in
      Indonesia's main Islamic body, the Council of
      Indonesian Ulama, says his organization takes a
      positive view of technology, actively encouraging, for
      example, the use of the Internet for Islamic banking.
      Even Indonesian cleric Ja'far Umar Thalib, leader of
      the now disbanded militia group Laskar Jihad, whose
      members were accused of terrorizing Christians in the
      Moluccas, says, "It's a good idea that technology is
      used for the benefit of the people."

      In Indonesia, Muslims are already harnessing
      technology to spread the word of God. The most
      conservative Islamic party contesting this year's
      parliamentary and presidential elections in Indonesia,
      the Prosperous Justice Party, has coordinated its
      activities via cellphone, mobilizing supporters for
      rallies, alms-giving and even for counting votes.

      One of the most aggressive adopters of technology is
      popular Muslim preacher Abdullah Gymnastiar, whose
      followers can subscribe to services sending prayers
      and Islamic aphorisms to friends and family members
      via text message.

      In fact, Gymnastiar plans to add cellphones with
      Islamic features--similar to those of other
      manufacturers--to his existing business empire, which
      includes a television station, radio network,
      newspaper, software company, Internet service provider
      and hotel. "There is no contradiction between Islam
      and technology," he says. "Islam teaches humankind to
      be more useful in life, to help people moving

      This is a reflection of how far attitudes have
      changed. When Singaporean salesman Mohammed Ismail
      started selling software versions of the Koran a few
      years ago he encountered angry customers who felt he
      was trying to make a profit from the Holy Book. "'You
      should be giving it away for free', people told me,"
      he recalls. "It took time to explain to them that I
      had research and development costs to cover, and if I
      didn't cover them, I would go out of business."

      Those days are over: Now, Mohammed's helping Ilkone
      sell Islamic-oriented cell phones. "No one's
      suggesting we give these away," he says.

      Rin Hindryati in Jakarta contributed to this story

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