WSJ: Techs Awaken to the Muslim Market

The LGE G5300 has a built in compass

Get your next cell phone with a built-in qibla compass. They’re now available in the US.

Jeremy Wagstaff. Wall Street Journal. (Eastern edition). New York, N.Y.: Jul 29, 2004. pg. B.4

Abstract:

Searching for an edge, LGE thought of building features into a cellphone to help Muslims fulfill their daily prayer obligations. The most obvious way: determining the direction of Islam’s holiest shrine, the Ka’aba, located in Mecca’s great mosque, which Muslims face to pray. So LGE’s G5300 cellphone, marketed last September in the Middle East, features a dangling compass that enables the user, after setting to north and inputting some local information, to pinpoint the right direction to the Saudi Arabian city.

To make sure it doesn’t err, PenMan has sought seals of approval from the highest authorities of Islamic teaching, including the Al- Azhar Al-Sharif Islamic Research Academy in Cairo, Egypt. The academy’s letter certifying PenMan’s digital Quran product range as “essentially proper, acceptable and free from errors” is 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 meets the approval of Asian Islamic authorities. In Brunei, clergy members are conducting random checks on the text of the Quran contained in ilkone’s cellphone, says Andrew Pang, marketing director of ilkone’s Singapore unit, ilkone Asia Pte. Ltd. Malaysian authorities, meanwhile, have asked for a printout of the Quran used in the phone. “If something is wrong with the product, we have to recall it and destroy it,” says Mr. Pang. “So we’re very careful.”

Full Text:

Singapore — WHEN APPLIANCE titan LG Electronics Inc. of South Korea tried to catch up with its competitors selling gadgets to the Islamic world, it turned to Mecca.

Searching for an edge, LGE thought of building features into a cellphone to help Muslims fulfill their daily prayer obligations. The most obvious way: determining the direction of Islam’s holiest shrine, the Ka’aba, located in Mecca’s great mosque, which Muslims face to pray. So LGE’s G5300 cellphone, marketed last September in the Middle East, features a dangling compass that enables the user, after setting to north and inputting some local information, to pinpoint the right direction to the Saudi Arabian city.

The phone has been a hit, says LGE assistant public-relations manager Karen Park, and this month LGE began selling an upgraded model.

LGE isn’t alone. Technology companies are waking up to the global consumer potential of more than one billion Muslims. Samcom Electronics’ ilkone Mobile Telecommunication, based in Dubai, 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.

South Korea’s Hosan Corp. — best known for producing 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 Quran in Arabic and English with recordings of the Muslim holy book, 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 up for grabs. LGE’s upgraded model, the F7100, will also be sold later this year in Indonesia — which has the world’s largest Muslim population — and Malaysia. Ilkone has just set up a Singapore subsidiary to market its i800 across Southeast Asia. Another maker of electronic devices for the Muslim market, Seoul-based PenMan Corp., has offices in Singapore and distributors for its Islamic products around the region.

Online Islam-related retail outlets are also sprouting up. One, Malaysia’s TravellingMuslim.com, has found its package of Prayer Watch, Qiblat Direction Finder and Electronic Tasbih — which respectively give prayer times, show the direction to Mecca and count prayer recitations — a big hit for both Malaysians and overseas customers, many of whom buy them as gifts.

It is too early to say whether this first wave of Islam-oriented products will spur more electronic products and services aimed at Muslim consumers. LGE, for one, says it doesn’t have any immediate plans for more models. And some companies privately acknowledge that such gadgets may fail to appeal to all Muslims, either because they prefer their religion in more traditional forms or because they don’t want to parade their beliefs in public.

Still, there is one sign that the gadgets are catching on: Cheap, Chinese-made copies of some of PenMan’s range of religious products are already appearing on the market, says Lee Rince, PenMan’s overseas-marketing manager.

But for piraters, the Muslim market is far more complicated than most. 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 Mr. Rince: “The Quran 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 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 authorities of Islamic teaching, including the Al- Azhar Al-Sharif Islamic Research Academy in Cairo, Egypt. The academy’s letter certifying PenMan’s digital Quran product range as “essentially proper, acceptable and free from errors” is 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 meets the approval of Asian Islamic authorities. In Brunei, clergy members are conducting random checks on the text of the Quran contained in ilkone’s cellphone, says Andrew Pang, marketing director of ilkone’s Singapore unit, ilkone Asia Pte. Ltd. Malaysian authorities, meanwhile, have asked for a printout of the Quran used in the phone. “If something is wrong with the product, we have to recall it and destroy it,” says Mr. Pang. “So we’re very careful.”

The fear of offending Muslims with new technology may be overblown, says Mahmoud Moursi, an Egyptian expert on Islamic culture now lecturing at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant. He points out that videocassette recorders were popular in Saudi Arabia long before they appeared in the U.S. On a recent visit to Egypt, he says he saw religion-oriented electronic devices there that have yet to appear in the U.S. He bought one himself: an alarm clock that wakes you up with recitations from the Quran. “These are nice things that really complement rather than contradict Islamic beliefs,” Mr. Moursi says.

Indeed, that view reflects changing attitudes toward mixing religion with technology among some Muslims. When Singaporean Mohammed Ismail, a former software vendor, started selling compact-disc versions of the Quran 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.”

Now, Mr. Mohammed is working for ilkone, selling its Islam-oriented cellphones. “No one’s suggesting we give these away,” he says.

Rin Hindryati in Jakarta contributed to this article.

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