4669Mecca for Gadget Makers - Feer, China
- Aug 2, 2004Mecca 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
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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