Locally lacking

Andrew Bossone looks into why there is so little Arab content on the internet - and who should be responsible for changing this.

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By  Administrator Published  March 7, 2007

The absence of Arab content on the internet was raised yet again last month, this time at the Cairo ICT conference. Andrew Bossone looks into the reasons behind why there is so little local content on the net and asks who should be responsible for changing this?

This year’s Cairo ICT conference was entitled ‘The Shape of Things to Come’; an appropriate theme in a region where internet usage can still be described as in a nascent phase of deployment and adoption.

Statistics show that internet use is growing rapidly here in the region. According to research released by Google’s Middle East headquarters in Cairo, while the number of internet users in the region (excluding Iran and Iraq) stood at 23 million at the end of last year, it will more than double by 2009 to 50 million.

Egypt itself will add nearly seven million users in the next three years, increasing to 12 million in 2009 from today’s 5.3 million users — already the highest figure of any country in the Arabic world.

But a large number of the people online in Egypt and Saudi Arabia (the second largest market in the region with 4.5 million internet users) are not visiting web pages — they are using instant messaging services. Such messaging services are hardly displaying the broadest range of the internet’s use — and they do not generate a whole lot of revenue.

A lack of Arabic is often blamed on not only preventing internet usage here in the Middle East from expanding in numbers, but also in scope. Some estimates suggest that as little as 1% of all content on the internet is in Arabic, although it is spoken in 26 countries worldwide.

“Nobody has exerted the effort to tie [technology] down to the local culture,” says Ossama Kamal, director of Trade Fairs International, organiser of the Cairo ICT summit.

“How people have grown up in the Arab world is that they get everything put on their laps,” he expands.

“They don’t want to exert the effort. The question is: who should be pushing them to contribute, or who should take the responsibility of bringing in Arabic content to the internet? Should it be private companies, should it be governments or should it be people?”

This question of who should drive content on the internet was explored in greater detail at one of the largest forums in the Cairo conference.

There was an interesting exchange between the audience, mostly composed of younger Egyptians, and the panel members that came from the technology industry. The audience accused multinational firms of entering the local market with the interest of making money and without investing in development of technology. For their part, the panel members’ response was largely along the line that private companies should not be the only drivers of content. They have one role to play, just as citizens, civil society and governments have theirs.

Google for instance, is not a content provider, but it does offer platforms for creating content. Its Google Earth application allows anyone to look at a satellite map of their cities and towns and customise it with names and locations. This has happened all around the world, but not in most of the Middle East.
Although Google only recently opened up its pages in Arabic, there has been nothing else stopping the local population accessing this content. To take an example from outside the region, Google never advertised its maps in New York, yet detailed maps of New York City are available.

“The private companies, what’s in it for them?” Kamal said. “People can do it for fun. Governments can do it for a purpose. Companies can only do it for money. They have not come up with creative ideas that are related to the local environments [that] really makes them money.

“Are there enough people on the internet to start making a penny? There are, but they’re not making the penny because the business model is not there. The business model is based on an American model that only works in America. There is no business model that is based on the habits and the traditions of people here.”

One content provider in Egypt is Con O’Donnell, whose web site filbalad.com — which is all in Arabic — is in the top ten in terms of traffic in the country. However, he admits to still experimenting in terms of finding a model that works in generating revenue. O’Donnell has tried out several models on making money from his web sites, but finds foreign paradigms are not working.

“We’re not anywhere near the Japanese, the Chinese or the American market,” he says. “Not in terms of advertising, not even in terms of the way people use the internet. There’s no great Arabic search engine, there’s no great Arabic directory like Yahoo. There’s nothing equivalent where people will easily find out what’s great about the internet. All these things aren’t there, so the internet in Egypt and the Arab world is a big jumble of mess. People don’t know anything about it,” O’Donnell goes on to say, adding that he is trying to go back to square one for advertising.

His banner advertisements called Stickerz and iwords look more like a newspaper classified than a sophisticated banner made in Java or Macromedia Flash. The idea is that most advertisers and media buyers are accustomed to traditional advertising, so these banners try to imitate previous successes.

He gives the example of how, when filbalad.com began its online advertising it used two messages, both exhorting prospective advertisers to place their ads. The first message stated that ‘150,000 people see this space every day’. The other message was ‘Advertise here for 500 Egyptian pounds (US$ 87.50)’. The second message got twice as many visits, O’Donnell says. “The same number of views, twice as many clicks as the other message. So it’s a very price sensitive market. They don’t care about how many, they care about how cheap it is,” he concludes.

While many companies are still trying to figure how to make money on the internet, and private citizens are not coming forward to take a proactive approach to developing content, Kamal says the governments, for their part, are balancing the interests of investors with old technologies and allowing a free market to push expansion.

“Governments of course have to protect the investors that come in and put in the infrastructure, but how long can they prevent… a cheaper, more effective technology for the sake of an investor?” he asks.

Whatever the motivations are for driving content, it is glaringly obvious that there is a desire for it at every level. Kamal believes the region will have to find ways of making the internet address the needs of particular markets or, at least, specific niches to become successful.

“As a consumer it’s none of my business who invested in what,” Kamal comments. “I want the best, I want the cheapest and I want it now.”

4148 days ago
Qais Sami

I agree with Osama Kamal that we don't have yet the perfect business model that suites Arab user behavior & lifestyle. Most of Arab users still living in the first generation of web using Forums, Chat rooms, and E-mail unlike the American or westerner user they contribute, read, develop, and share knowledge. Government & Private sector should make serious collaboration in order to create a valuable Arabic content for Arab users. Yes! We lack of unique Arabic content, we have seen many Arabic news sites that share the same news no originality & specialty. You can't find a specialized site for mobile technologies in Arabic or web technologies or real free Arabic encyclopedia (not wikipedia). In the region no one dare to create a unique web project because lack of venture capital for technology support, no enough web Arab experts, no enough research & studies about Arabic users. Eric Schmidt - Google CEO said "don't lead by advertising, but lead by users" it's very clear message about focusing on user experience because user satisfaction = money (profit).

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