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Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Webbing the Emirates

by Richard King

When Tim Berners-Lee first designed the elements of the World Wide Web during a consulting stint at CERN, the European high-energy physics research facility, little did he envision that his innovation would help revolutionise the way we communicate. Millions of people worldwide are now using the Web. The internet offers almost unlimited access to information and the ability to communicate quickly - and inexpensively - with other Internet users.

When Etisalat offered UAE residents Internet access late in 1995, it met with a fairly luke-warm response. People seemed wary of the new technology. The limited marketing campaign was directed more at corporations rather than the home user, who stands to gain just as much as companies from access to the Net. It took the media to help popularlize the Internet, and several publications ran features on the subject while newspapers carried stories on the developments taking place on the Web almost on a daily basis. Interest increased and subscribers climbed to approximately 10,000 by the end of last year. It seemed set to accelerate when a sudden snag developed.

Despite claims to the contrary by advocates of the Internet, it was obvious to most observers that the Internet was increasingly subject to severe abuse, with pornographic, subversive and other questionable material freely available. It was equally obvious - given the cultural ethos of this region - that some stringent measures would need to be taken to restrict access to this material. Etisalat took such a measure on February 2 with its introduction of the Proxy Server, claiming that not only would it block access to undesirable sites but speed up access to web sites by local caching.

From the uproar that erupted, it was clear that the move had exactly the opposite results: Internet users suddenly found themselves faced with increasingly lengthy waiting times to be able to access information on web sites. While they could no longer access questionable sites as easily, they found that several totally legitimate sites had been blocked as well. This writer can bear ample witness to that Web pages that I normally could have accessed in less than a minute now took more than double the time. Among several sites I was not able to access were Microsoft's Site Builder Network and CNN!

The effects of the Proxy Server on the growth of the Internet in the UAE is difficult to accurately gage. While making people more wary of the efficacy of the Internet in providing information with a minimum of fuss and effort, most people realize the practical importance of the Internet and the inevitable role it will play in their lives. There are an estimated 30,000 Internet users in the UAE currently, half of whom are paid subscribers. Despite any drawbacks - such as the Proxy Server - that might exist, most analysts expect this to touch 50,000 by the end of the year. Elsewhere in the Middle East, Oman and Qatar recently got onto the bandwagon, while Bahrain climbed on much earlier. Though the total number of users in the Middle East is a fraction of the worldwide total, it has at least placed the region on the Internet world map.

The potential of reaching these people has not been ignored by business, which sees in the Internet a way to market products and services as well as cut costs in advertising and other printed material. The Internet allows them to address far more people than the local media ever could, and as well offers them more flexibility for updating material. Business is now being transacted on a regular basis on the Internet, from ordering pizza to larger commercial activities like on-line banking and e-mail order purchasing.

In the UAE, while several companies adopted a wait-and-see approach when the Internet was introduced in the region, a few could see the potential of this new medium from the start and didn't hesitate to make the plunge. The Emirates Bank Group, Dubai National Investment Company and Khaleej Times were among the first to have an Internet web site. None have had cause to regret the step, as they have all benifitted from their presence on the Net. The Khaleej Times web site (www.khaleej.com), for instance, averages about 20,000 hits a month, and its success has prompted the publishers to carry the complete contents of the paper on-line along with their daily Features supplement and Weekend magazine. Dubai National Invesment Company's presence (www.dnic.com) on the Net has been equally fruitful, with bookings to the Group's chain of hotels often made on-line, and the number of visitors to the on-line version of Al Shindagah, equalling the subscribers to the printed version. This success has caused several others to follow suit with most of the major groups in the UAE already on-line and others - both small and large companies - on the way.

One of the side effects of the rapid evolution of the Internet has been the creation of a brand new industry - web site development. Several entrepreneurs have set up operations, offering a varied menu of services to clients, ranging from Internet training and consultancy to web page design and maintenance. A few have already achieved a considerable degree of success, but to maintain any advantage is another question. The smell of quick success has resulted in a flood of entrants, all eager to cash in on the new trend. This has resulted in fierce competition, with developers not just undercutting rivals at every turn, but often offering to do web sites for free. While this tactic is a fairly standard practice for new entrants eager to have a few big names they can add to their client list, it is not unknown even among the bigger players in the game. The competition is brutal as well, often degenerating to the level of a street brawl with developers bad mouthing each other at every turn. About one in ten survive. Among the survivors are Dubai-based Search Internet Development Services, and Netcomm. With enviable client lists that include some of the biggest names in the region, such firms maintain a very high profile in the market. Good design, strong web site marketing practices and excellent customer support are the reasons for these companys' success.

One of the positive fall-outs of the competition has been the increasing sophistication in web design, with developers vying with each other to produce more technically advanced web pages. Clients now have the option of advanced programming and development techniques such as Java, Shockwave, LiveAudio, Future Splash and ActiveX, all designed to make web pages more exciting and appealing. Another result, no less beneficial to the customer, has been the plumetting cost of web development. While developers were known to charge as much as Dhs 2,000 per page of HTML coding with additional charges levied for graphics and other enhancements, the charges now average around Dhs 500 per page inclusive of everything! A few developers continue to charge higher prices, saying quality costs more. Aranha of Search says, "One expects to pay more for a Rolls-Royce than a Toyota Corolla. Why should it be any different here?"

The Internet is here to stay. E-mail is increasingly replacing the fax machine as a means to send and receive messages, and it won't be long before the latter will go the way of the telex machine. Several see the existing telephone system being made redundant as well, currently available communication software lets one Internet user talk to another anywhere in the world via the Net at costs that are a fraction of those spent on a telephone call. Advancements in video transfer mean that they are even able to see each other while talking. With Sony and other corporate giants now producing television sets with the Internet incorporated in them, it is just a matter of time before all of us will be hooked on the Net.

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