Microsoft, Google eye Arabic web growth potential
CAIRO (Reuters) - The further integration of Arabic language capabilities in internet and other technological architecture will grant millions access to the digital world, Microsoft and Google executives said.
As devices and applications become more ubiquitous in less developed countries, their content will grow and an embryonic e-economy should flourish, they said.
"(Microsoft CEO) Steve Ballmer and I a few years ago talked and believed Arabic would be an increasingly important language," said Craig Mundie, Microsoft's chief research and strategy officer. "And yet, because of the way the internet was evolving, it wasn't a language that was getting a lot of use."
But while Arab world internet use since 2000 has grown faster than anywhere else and access costs have shrunk, content still punches below its weight and ad spending remains tiny.
Arabic content is less than 1 percent of world totals though speakers constituting 5 percent of the global population.
The Arabic portal of online encyclopedia Wikipedia carries less words than its Catalan site, Google's regional marketing manager Wael Ghonim said.
"There is a lot of Arabic content but it is not well structured," he said. "We want more structured content. We want more of the professional, niche sites, more businesses."
"One of our biggest missions is to enable Arabic users to find the right tools to enrich Arabic content," Ghonim said. "It would be great to see more e-commerce in the region, more publishers, more news sites. We are committed to help them."
Asked how Google could aid such regional growth, Ghonim said: "We have a very ambitious plan in the next few months, we are working on many initiatives." He did not elaborate.
Regional spending on online advertising was around $90 million in 2009, up from $66.5 million in 2008 and $38 million in 2007 but still miniscule compared to Britain's $5.3 billion.
Ghonim said Arabic speakers have historically engaged in poorly organized and difficult to archive forums, citing a message board used by 400,000 teachers in Saudi Arabia.
Both Google and Microsoft place Arabic in their top ten languages in need of prioritized attention.
Microsoft's Mundie was visiting the Cairo Microsoft Innovation Center, a regional hub launched in 2006 that released Windows extension Maren, which converts Arabic written in Roman characters into Arabic script. It is Microsoft's second most popular service by page views after Internet Explorer 8.
ARABIC WEB ADDRESSES, MOBILE ACCESS
Egypt and Saudi Arabia registered the first domain names written in the right-to-left Arabic script late last year, after global internet regulator ICANN voted to allow non-Latin script to be used in web addresses in November.
In Egypt, internet access is becoming cheaper and use of internet on mobile devices is blossoming. Egypt plans a $1 billion upgrade to its broadband capacity over four years to quadruple penetration to 20 percent.
"The next few million Egyptian internet users will be people who don't really speak English," Ghonim said.
Such users will likely not foray deeply into the internet's marketplace initially, but will no longer be hindering from creating part of the fabric of the web by language constraints.
"Think of the guy running a very small one-stop shop in (Nile delta industrial city) Mahalla," Ghonim said. "You should facilitate for him a complete experience in Arabic, from the way he registers his domain to finding a hosting company to communicating to his customers."
Mundie said the Arab world was well-placed to skip PC-dominated use and go straight to mobile internet.
"The arrival of a very low cost form of computing coupled to the mobile network creates an alternative entry point into the world of computing and internet usage," he added.
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