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IT in Southeast Asia, the rise of mobile tech

In the two years since I was in Southeast Asia last, a lot has changed when it comes to the use of technology. Where it used to be very rare to see locals use computers altogether. My recent trip to Indonesia revealed a fascinating insight into the adoption rate of (mobile) technology. Spoiler alert: mobile technology is conquering the world at a rapid pace.

When I arrived in Jakarta three weeks ago, it didn’t take long the notice that technology is becoming as mainstream as it is in The Netherlands; Before I even passed customs, I spotted the first policemen, sales reps and janitors using smartphones. Walking through the airport hallways other hints towards this trend started to appear; An overwhelming selection of telco’s that were no longer advertising minutes, but data.

When I arrived in Jakarta three weeks ago, it didn’t take long the notice that technology is becoming as mainstream as it is in The Netherlands;

Of course, an airport and the people working there aren’t necessarily a proper reflection of society. But after three weeks of backpacking through rural areas and using all sorts of public transportation, the notion that occurred to me on that first day has stuck. During this time, a couple aspects of the local use of technology stood out.

  • Mobile data coverage is quite good throughout Java & Bali
  • The amount of telecom service providers is more or less comparable to the selection you have in The Netherlands. Although you should keep in mind that Indonesia does have a government owned telco that, according to some locals, is able to “influence” internet access and set restrictions (Netflix is blocked for instance)
  • Mobile seems to be the medium preferred by locals, although you do still see (outdated) desktops every once in awhile. I suspect the reason for this is a combination of Indonesians having a limited budget and the platforms of choice being available on smartphones. This image might be coloured though, since I haven’t spoken a lot of locals that require a laptop/desktop for their profession.
  • Internet cafe’s are getting scarce, WiFi is everywhere

IT in south-east Asia

During my stay in Indonesia, I met a couple IT professionals who work in the Indonesian technology sector. Among which a few programmers and the (Iranian) founder of a local incubator who mentors young IT programmers on the side. Although I can hardly call the conversations I had with them research, they stipulated the following challenges with regard to software development in Indonesia:

  • Education for programmers is often outdated and the quality is, in their opinion, beneath par
  • Although improving, English language skills among Indonesians often aren’t sufficient to be able to collaborate with foreign teams. This has implications for (advanced) education in programming as well, since the broad array of lectures, courses and tutorials available online today can’t be fully utilised by all aspiring Indonesian programmers.
  • Although the people in their professional network are eager to “make it big”, it isn’t part of the culture to broaden horizons and learn individually / on their own initiative. More importantly; Organisational structure / hierarchy is still very important and team dynamics (on a personal level) are different to what we’d expect in Europe. Since I haven’t experienced this myself, so I can’t make a statement on this, but the way it was described to me it seems highly inefficient.

My experience

Before I conclude this first impression on technology in Indonesia, I’d like to share the most hands-on experience I had with tech in Indonesia. Or experiences, to be more accurate, using Grab, one of the broadly used Uber-like transportation apps.
Southeast asia

Over the course of my holiday, I used Grab for door-to-door transportation with motorbikes and cars, both for me alone and with small groups (max. 5). The application itself is really great; it works smooth and intuitive, uses little data (& is therefore pretty quick) and makes communication with local drivers completely obsolete. Furthermore, the amount of available drivers is often more than sufficient. Despite this, using Grab in Indonesia isn’t the same as using a comparable service in The Netherlands / Europe. This has everything to do with the way local drivers use the app and the lack of understanding they seem to have for the underlying principles of this technology.

GPS / Navigation:

Perhaps the most problematic, is the fact that the majority of drivers don’t understand (the principles of) navigation; Not one of my drivers took the exact route recommended by Grab / Google Maps, almost all diversions from this route were inefficient and in about half of all rides the drivers circled around and / or missed exits multiple times. The best example of this phenomenon occurred on my last day in Jakarta, when a 5,5km / 25 min ride that should have consisted of just 2 turns with one long street in between turned into a 80 min sightseeing tour. Although this was in no way a problem for me, it might be a hurdle for someone that actually needs to get somewhere.


I was refused a ride a couple of times because the selected drivers “no speak English”, somehow not understanding that just this is solved by the technology they use every day. Besides these recurring issues, I ran into quite a few other situations that appeared to originate from drivers getting confused by what the app was telling them.

Future for IT in South-east Asia

Perhaps the best take-away I can formulate based on my experiences; A massive new market is opening up for digital products, but deploying technology in developing countries may require different, more clear and seemingly redundant user feedback- & educational elements.



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