By Brid-Aine Conway
Are localised IT products a fly-by-night marketing trend or a true representation of regional commitment?
The press releases speak for themselves. Over the last four months, no less than four companies, including three major players, have announced Arabised IT products for the Middle East market. Adobe, Mindware, Avaya and Edutech have all released Arabised versions of products, often in partnership with regional enterprises.
While this may seem to be a recent trend, Microsoft has been Arabising software since producing an Arabic version of MS-DOS in 1987. This first recognition of the Middle East as a potentially huge consumer of IT has encouraged more and more global firms to look at localising their products for this market.
Just because people speak English doesn’t mean they’re comfortable speaking English – they’re probably much more comfortable operating in their own language.
Although Avaya's launch in May claimed its Arabic-enabled IP telephony system as the first in the region, Cisco claims it was an earlier adopter of Arabisation, introducing its IP telephony systems supporting Arabic in October 2006.
Wael Abdulal, sales business development manager at Cisco, feels that Arabised products are not a bonus to be carried by international companies, but a necessity for the Middle East market.
"Does every customer want Arabic? The answer is no. Is it important? Absolutely yes. There are companies where if you don't have Arabic, you simply can't be listed," he says.
According to Internet World Statistics, 2.5% of the world's internet users speak Arabic, ranking the language as the tenth most used on the web. Arabic is also the fourth most spoken language with 256 million speakers around the world. Statistics like these should make Arabisation a no-brainer for any IT manufacturer with global ambition, but this is only part of the story.
It is well known that English is a common choice of second language. When 514 million people speak English as a first language and a large proportion adopts it as a second language, particularly those in business, the incentive to localise to specific markets seems to fade.
But Abdulal disagrees, "We say English is the communication language, that's everywhere, but still in the Middle East, Arabic is a communication language for lots of businesses and government offices."
Manish Goel, CEO at Boxsentry, feels that the prevalence of English as a second language is irrelevant when a company decides if they should Arabise their products or not.
"Just because people speak English doesn't mean they're comfortable speaking English - they're probably much more comfortable operating in their own language and when given a choice, they would prefer to operate in that language. I think as technology developers, as solution providers, it's our obligation to make sure that customers are actually able to interface with our technology in a way that they're comfortable with," he asserts.
Boxsentry's partnership with Mindware led to the release of RealMail, an authentication technology they claim is the first on the market to be Arabic-enabled. Goel also thinks that Arabisation is a necessity for the Middle East market.
"I really wouldn't go into a market and claim to have a solution for a market without a localised product. I think that if you don't have a localised product for a marketplace, you don't belong in that marketplace," he continues.
We feel that if products are available in Arabic there will be a much better utilisation of technology and more ICT adoption in the region.
Most companies agree that localised products have the strongest attraction for the government sector. Governments not only use local languages to run their services, but are also ideologically involved in retaining local languages.
Shameema Parveen, a knowledge officer at Edutech Middle East, says that most of the Middle East countries have a nationalisation agenda that is set by governments - in order to meet targets they need to have the national population educated and ready for the workforce.
"To meet targets, governments need to be able to provide knowledge and learning across the community, not just to a select few who have the language capability in English. That is why we feel that Arabisation is very important, because this will ensure that every single Arabic-speaking Arabian citizen will have access to these technologies that are being used in the world today and that will give them the edge and the competency to be able to get the jobs that are being offered," she says.
Edutech announced the launch of an Arabic-enabled version of Blackboard Academic Suite in August. It provides input and feedback to partners such as Blackboard, which are actually implementing the Arabisation. Parveen explains that Edutech aims to "enhance knowledge" and a key part of this is in technology adoption.
"We feel that as much as possible, if products are available in Arabic there will be much better utilisation of technology and ICT adoption in the region. For example, internet usage is one of the ways that countries are evaluated in terms of ICT capability and the only way to get that kind of a number up is to be able to reach out into the wider population in the local culture and the local mother tongue," she states.
But companies are not Arabising their products in the pursuit of noble gains alone. According to Cisco's Abdulal, if a company wants to increase its market share, Arabisation is one of the ways of doing so.
"I see a better market share for us. We are touching some businesses that we didn't touch before and we are getting market share in some verticals that we didn't have very good market share in before," he says.
For many companies, Arabising products also shows a commitment to the region and inspires customer loyalty from Middle East consumers. Arabisation is not a trivial prospect for software products. A choice has first to be made on whether the product will be Arabised at the front-end only, as in Cisco's telephony system, where the user interface is in Arabic but the backend remains in English (often referred to as Arabic-enabled products) or to fully Arabise a product. Both choices can incur significant costs.
A lot of global companies turn to regional partners to aid in Arabisation, such as Boxsentry's partnership with Mindware, and Adobe's partnership with Winsoft to produce its recently announced launch of an Arabic-enabled version of Creative Suite 3. These partnerships, whether outsourcing, distribution or collaboration, can prove costly for the company involved, but global players are beginning to see returns that outweigh the cost.
"There is a significant cost in localisation through outsourcing, but we believe this cost is justified because of not only the returns on investment but also the commitment to the local consumers and it's very good for customer loyalty," says Andrew Lindström, MEA regional manager for Adobe.
Lindström says that although revenues may fluctuate, a company's purpose is to make money, and if they weren't making money from localisation, companies wouldn't do it. He also believes that without Arabisation, a global player is excluding large swathes of the Middle East.
"Language is always a barrier to technology. The more applications, the more services, the more technologies that are available in local languages, the wider your available customer base becomes. So if we only had English versions, we've suddenly written off Saudi Arabia, Egypt and quite a few of the other smaller countries such as Oman and Jordan, where they require Arabic products. Having localised products gives us a competitive edge against anybody that's in our space because we have significantly more products," he continues.
Pierre Blanghero, CEO of Winsoft, Adobe's partner in Arabisation adds, "Obviously, when you are in Dubai, you have a good number of people who don't work in Arabic at all, they just use English. But if you go to Saudi Arabia or Egypt then everybody works in Arabic."
"And if you want to penetrate the school environment, Arabic is critical because, other than the UAE, most of the schools are using Arabic as a first language, so if you want to do any educational products, that's critical," he says.
An increase in market share, revenue returns and customer loyalty for the brand are all solid drivers to an investment in localisation, especially for global players who have the spending power, but companies are not oblivious to the social and cultural implications of Arabisation. Roger El-Tawil, channel and marketing director at Avaya MENA, claims Avaya's launch of an Arabic-enabled IP telephony system in May was about much more than business drivers.
"The decision was not for a return on investment - it was really a commitment to the region. The decision was us as Arabs living in the Middle East. We wanted to preserve Arabic language and heritage," he maintains, "You can't ignore the fact that there are businesses within countries, not everyone is an international businessman."
On one point, all enterprise vendors agree - while English may be seen as a communication language for business, the need for localised products is only going to grow as the digital divide narrows.
"Unfortunately we tend right now to speak more English than Arabic. But do we see Arabic disappearing or are we going to Arabise less products? Absolutely not. We're going to continue because there is a demand for it," Abdulal concludes.