Microsoft, Google eye Arabic web growth potential

* 350 mln native Arabic speakers, 16 pct use internet

* Arabic language content on Wikipedia less than Catalan

* Mobile access growing, costs falling

By Alastair Sharp

CAIRO, April 24 (BestGrowthStock) – The further integration of
Arabic language capabilities in internet and other technological
architecture will grant millions access to the digital world,
Microsoft (MSFT.O: ) and Google (GOOG.O: ) executives said. Read More About Google Stock Analysis.

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 organised 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 prioritised attention.

Microsoft’s Mundie was visiting the Cairo Microsoft
Innovation Centre, 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. [ID:nLDE5BC09E]

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. [ID:nLDE5BE1VP]

“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.

Microsoft, Google eye Arabic web growth potential