WAP attack

Computer Reseller News talks to Bashar Dahabra from info2cell and Nazir Ashraf from arabianbiz.com and ask: Risk takers or Profit makers?

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By  Colin Browne Published  September 19, 2000

Computer Reseller News talks to Bashar Dahabra from info2cell and Nazir Ashraf from arabianbiz.com and ask: Risk takers or Profit makers?

Imagine trying to build a business based on a concept that nobody else is able to grasp.

Now imagine taking three years of development, research and persuading customers that your idea will work, and that when the time is right, will evolve into profitable business for all involved.

Seems risky, yes, but for Bashar Dahabra and Nasir Ashraf, their years of risk taking are about to bear the fruit of all their hard work.

Both are content providers for Wireless Application Protocol (WAP). Dahabra is the founder and managing director of Info2cell.com, and Ashraf is the founder and CEO of arabianbiz.com.

Both are hoping to hit the jackpot as the Middle East begins to acknowledge the idea of WAP, and whilst info2cell is further along in its development and offerings, both expect to be positioned at the forefront of the industry when WAP takes off. “The way we look at it, is that right now, we are sitting on a virgin market here in the Middle East,” said Ashraf.

So, what is so special about these two content providers, after all, surely all one needs for a WAP site is a little HTML knowledge? The answer is that both companies have had to undergo years of development in order to make WAP work properly through SMS messaging, which is then tied back to the WAP portal for added information, and in real-time.

The road to WAPdom has been long and arduous, with many headaches along the way. One of the hardest parts of ensuring success for both companies has been to find finance and backing for the idea. Dahabra found help within the Arab community, whilst Ashraf is at this moment signing deals for financial backing.

Luckily, for Dahabra, backing was sought before the dot.com crashes of late and says that info2cell has a paid-up capital of US$2 million dollars, which is still in a healthy position.

Meanwhile, Ashraf is finding that being a dot.com is now working against him, as venture capitalists are more wary than before about investing. “Unless we have an extremely ‘out of this world’ dot.com idea, when we approach some VCs, they say yes, but they want to see the revenue model. It is no longer that you can break even in the third year, they want to see money coming in after the fourth or fifth quarter,” explained Ashraf.

Funding for the ventures has not being the only difficulty for the two entrepreneurs. Finding qualified staff, dealing with the region’s PTTs and developing the technology to host the content have all proved to be major obstacles for the dynamic duo.

Info2cell had to develop almost all of its system, named InfoTrack, which took three years to develop, and is constantly being enhanced and tweaked to cope with new technologies. “InfoTrack has something like ten man years of development, due to the fact that we have built many of the components for the real-time operation,” said Dahabra.

“There was no solution off the shelf then, and there is still no solution today that is sophisticated and flexible enough to interconnect between the PTTs,” he added.

Ashraf is having “trouble finding some brains” and is looking to India and Pakistan to provide this expertise but unfortunately, this is a hidden cost to getting the business up on its feet and running smoothly.

“When I get a CV that looks great, I have two choices: take my technical guy to India or Pakistan and spend time there, or bring someone here to find out if they are qualified,” said Ashraf.

Despite the similar problems that both companies have faced so far, and the fact that both have developed WAP portals for the Middle East, the way of providing content differs.

Info2cell is ahead of the pack with content—two hundred and fifty categories and counting—and already the content is arabised; an aspect that arabianbiz.com is working on right now. “The crown jewel for info2cell is the Arabic WAP. That is saying to the competition, if you want to play catch-up….it’s here,” said Dabahra.

The major difference between the two however, is that whilst arabianbiz.com will keep its content unique and in-house, Dahabra sees his role as providing some of the content, and providing the vehicle for other content providers to come on board and provide the rest. “For those with content, lets partner and enhance the portal that we have developed,” said Dahabra.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the WAP content provider strategy is the ability to make money, and info2cell has only just begun to see the start of it. Advertising on the arabianbiz.com site will provide approximately one-third of the total revenue, according to Ashraf, with other revenue streams coming from listings (like the Yellow Pages) and charging for premium services such as real-time stock quotes.

Info2cell is open to financial issues based on the type of agreement regarding content, and is also looking to offer the GSM operators a package of services, and take a percentage of the profit. “If someone comes to me and wants to use info2cell as a vehicle, that’s fine, please be my guest. But, if you expect me to do the advertising campaign, then I expect to take more of a share,” said Dahabra.

The problem that both companies face now is that WAP is still a very new concept, and unlike Asia for example, where the majority of introductions to the Internet are through WAP-enabled phones, the Middle East is generally slow on the uptake of new services, especially as the PTTs have yet to release services to support WAP.

The good news however, is that the use of mobile phones in the region stands at around five million now, but predictions suggest that that figure will rise to thirty-five million GSM subscribers by 2004.

This is the kind of figure that excites Dahbara: “Thirty-five million users, that by 2004 I can guarantee all kinds of services.” Unfortunately, services that can be offered for WAP now are quite limited, although technology changes so quickly that it shouldn’t be too long before m-commerce will be available, and in preparation, both companies are looking to roll out B2B and B2C sites in the near future.

In fact, info2cell has the systems ready, and is now waiting for the B2B portals to get up and running. “Working on m-commerce is another major area for us, and already on the ground a number of strategic alliances with a number of B2B alliances,” said Dahabra.

Services for the future include video-conferencing, e-commerce, location-finding and a whole host of other innovative ideas to make the mobile phone as indispensable to the traveller, businessman and home user as a PC or laptop.

“Today, WAP is still an infant and being developed, but it will become more sophisticated and will include GPRS, Internet connectivity, WAP 24x7, and all the users will be reachable with our content,” said Dahabra.

For the time being, both companies have the enviable problems of managing growth, gathering more finance and constantly developing. And though there are few customers today, the saying goes: build it, and they will come. Dahabra is ready for it. Ashraf isn’t sitting back. Both know they don’t have the luxury of building a service around their customers. It has to be excellent long before they arrive.

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