From Pakistan to S.F., it's a whole new tech world

In Northern California, iPods are everywhere and everyone talks about the latest in gadgets. In Islamabad, not so much. Photo: Checking out gadgets in S.F.

4 min read
SAN FRANCISCO--You don't often see white iPod earbuds on the streets of Islamabad. Here in the city by the bay? Now that's a different story.

It's been a few weeks since I arrived in California for my stint as a visiting reporter at CNET News.com. My editor suggested I do a piece on the differences in the high-tech gear used here and in my home city, Islamabad, Pakistan.

It sounded like an interesting idea, and the most obvious place to start is with Apple's iPod. In San Francisco, admittedly a major technology center, they're everywhere. You have to interrupt people's MP3 revelry just to ask directions.

Zamir in S.F.

Perhaps I'm exaggerating, but it's strange to me that, at a glance, around 80 percent of the people on the street or on underground trains seem to be using an iPod or other MP3 player.

According to The NPD Group, 24.4 million portable digital players were sold in the United States in 2006 alone. Where is credit due for that proliferation--the value of the music itself, or the iPod technology that's made music so easy to carry around? Now you can even watch videos on iPods, which are probably not even used by 1 percent of people in Pakistan. There, FM radios on cell phones are getting popular.

That leads me to computers and the Internet. Pakistan has experienced amazing growth in computer literacy, but I witnessed the true potential for its application here in the Bay Area. During my first week at Stanford University for the kickoff workshop of the program that brought me here (the Innovation Journalism Fellowship Program), I saw wireless Internet facilities in almost every building of the campus.

Every student seemed to carry a laptop and had universal Internet access. The landlords in my San Francisco apartment use a wireless Internet connection at home, and I was told that now almost every household has Wi-Fi. That's an overstatement, no doubt, but there are certainly many Wi-Fi-enabled homes.

According to the Ministry of Finance's Economic Survey of Pakistan for fiscal 2005-2006, computer use in urban households is high. In comparison with the literacy rate--53 percent--at least 40 percent of Pakistanis are computer literate or have access to computers.

Mostly, these are Pentium II or Pentium III PCs, since laptops are expensive. PCs are now widely available at good prices, thanks to Chinese computers flooding the markets. Most of these machines are not big brands, but they do say "Intel Inside." As for laptops, they come from various brands like Dell, Toshiba, Compaq, Sony and Apple. Wireless Internet connections, on the other hand, are still rare.

Dialing up through the phone lines
In Pakistan, 99 percent of Internet connections are still over phone lines. Wi-Fi is generally seen only at five-star hotels and now at a few restaurants. People at home usually use Internet cards of various denominations starting from 10 rupees per hour (16 cents) to 100 rupees per 10 hours ($1.60). Connection speeds through Internet cards are generally poor.

Getting permanent Internet connections from an Internet service provider is expensive, but most businesses do get connections from these companies.

Mobile phones are the most common form of personal technology seen in Pakistan. Connecting to the Internet through mobile phones is getting popular now, but it probably will still take another a year or more to be as popular as it is here in California.

People here are excited about the coming of the Apple iPhone. That's what I hear people talking about when I go to any of the mobile phone outlets in San Francisco.

In Pakistan, people aren't that much different when it comes to mobile phones. They're fond of buying expensive cell phones not for technology purposes alone, but also largely to show off.

About 1.6 million subscribers are added on cellular mobile networks each month in Pakistan, which serves as a great comparison to any Asian country. In fact, the total mobile subscribers at the end of April 2006 crossed the 29.6 million mark, a substantial portion of my country's total population--around 160 million, according to the Economic Survey of Pakistan.

People here keep a close watch on the new high-tech televisions and home theater systems. My landlord has a 32-inch Vizio TV for the apartment in which I live. Broadly speaking, it seems that the consumer can go for new models in TVs because of a greater purchasing power in the overall economy.

In Pakistan, it's different. The large-screen plasma TVs are good to watch in big electronic stores, but as for buying them? Plasma TVs in Pakistan are expensive, starting from 30,000 rupees (about $500) to 120,000 rupees ($2,000). To understand what that means in Islamabad, it helps to know that the average monthly income per household is around 12,000 rupees (about $200).

In Pakistan, there are no monthly purchase plans. Plastic money has made its roots, but not many people have credit cards. The banks have started offering credit cards to account holders, but only to those who qualify for some credit-worthiness, such as those with a monthly salary of more than 12,000 rupees (about $200).

At home in Pakistan, I hear little talk about technology innovation. But in downtown San Francisco--in bars, on television, on street corners--people talk about tech features coming in the new cars, new technology in the iPod, video games, and an array of gadgets.

It's a different world.