MSN Arabia redraws local web landscape

After 12 months of speculation, MSN Arabia has leaped into cyberspace at today’s show. The portal, which has taken a little under six months to develop, threatens to redefine the regional Internet landscape.

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By  Greg Wilson Published  October 13, 2001

After 12 months of speculation, MSN Arabia has leaped into cyberspace at today’s show. The portal, which has taken a little under six months to develop, threatens to redefine the regional Internet landscape.

MSN Arabia — developed by Egypt-based LinkDotNet, MSN Corporate and Microsoft’s local office — intends to leverage the estimated 2.2 million Hotmail users in the Arab World to establish itself as the de-facto browsing destination for the region.

“We’re not going to be the best to begin with… this is going to be a building process,” says Khaled Bichara, president & CEO LINKDotNET.

“However, the combination of local content, the [portal] platform and localised development will enable us to establish ourselves quickly,” explains Bichara.

The portal, officially inauguratedearlier this week behind closed-doors by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, is already offering Arabic functionality to users.

For example, today the MSN platform enables subscribers to use its Messenger Service in Arabic. Also Hotmail subscribers can send and receive Arabic e-mails. However, there still isn’t a local interface available.

Further platform services will be Arabised rapidly, as the platform evolves, says Bichara. Next on the agenda for Arabisation is Microsoft’s Passport service — a vital element of Microsoft’s .NET strategy — which is due for delivery post-Gitex.

“We’re going to be adding Arabised .NET services as and when we can. We’re going to be attempting to do as many joint English/Arabic launches as possible,” says Bichara.

Going forward platform services alone won’t be enough to climb on top of the portal market. Content is going to be increasingly critical as portal players fight over the limited market and minimal online advertising budgets, which form the financial lifeline of many fledgling portals.

However, MSN Arabia— which also relies on advertising revenue — isn’t daunted by the tough market conditions, even though very few portals have made money through online advertising alone.

Bichara believes MSN Arabia has a unique content model that emphasises partnerships. “We provide the platform and the marketing for content providers… this enables [content providers] to focus on supplying the content,” says Bichara.

But LinkDotNet’s CEO concedes that the local content market “needs to mature.”

MSA Arabia is hoping that its arrival will mature the online advertising market in the region. MSN’s platform offers a sophisticated degree of personalisation for visitors, which in turn delivers a customer portrait that can be used sell advertising online.

“In the past there hasn’t been mature marketing of online services in the region… but through MSN we can offer a full range of services.
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