The role played by digital media in the recent political upheavals in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere in the Arab World dominated conversations at this year’s Abu Dhabi Media Summit, held last month in the United Arab Emirates. However, the entrepreneurs, publishers and organizers with whom I met there and at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair were equally eager to speak about the overall evolution of Arabic digital media, publishing and mobile technologies.
Recent reports, surveys and other research point to a common international trend that is being echoed in the growth of digital media adaptation in the Middle East–mainly that digital media is being driven by a very young, growing and better educated population. These young people also connect to digital media via mobile devices and ferociously embrace social networking. Needless to say, both publishers and policy-makers are hurrying to try to stay in step with this rapidly growing mobile and interactive population.
Figures from 2009 show general Internet penetration among selected Arab countries to range from a top end of 60%+ per capita in the UAE to 1% in Iraq. Many of these figures, however, don’t count the influence of cafes or other public Internet access points, which push the actual penetration figures higher.
According to both Google and Yahoo. The Arabic speaking world is currently the fastest growing region per capita in terms of Internet penetration. Most of that gowth is mobile-based. Recent research in January 2011 by Effective Measure and Spot On Public Relations out of Dubai, revealed that fully 45% of Middle East/North Africa (MENA) Internet users access digital information via their mobile phones as their primary device, a figure that rises to 50% in the UAE. Email accounted for the primary mobile data activity (71%), followed by social networking (34%), then news/sports/weather (29%). Perhaps most significant for publishers of all stripes is the statistic showing that 85% of Arabic-speaking mobile Internet users have downloaded apps, with 27% (of a 12,000+ survey population) reporting that they downloaded more than one app per week.
This would suggest amazing opportunity for Arabic media companies. There is one big problem however: less than 5% of all Internet content is currently in Arabic.
This gulf between opportunity and content provided the backdrop for this year’s Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. The fair was organized by Kitab AE, a joint-venture between Abu Dhabi’s Ministry of Culture and Heritage and Frankfurter Buchmesse, the organizers of the famed Frankfurt Book Fair.
Within the Abu Dhabi fair was a dedicated area showcasing digital publishing solutions. Out of the 875 total exhibitors, this area proved to be one of the most heavily visited.
It was in the e-zone where I met with Gary Rodrigues, an executive at iPublish Central, which is a SaaS publishing provider for the book industry. Based out of Bangalore and New York City, iPublish Central launched two years ago to deliver books on the cloud. Focusing on educational publishing, iPublish Central works with a veritable “who’s who” of the book publishing world including McGraw-Hill, MIT Press, Sesame Street Publishing, Elsevier, Wolters Kluwer as well as large NGOs with significant publishing operations like The World Bank and the American Medical Association.
Specific to the Middle East, Gary noted that both top-down and bottom-up forces are driving digital distribution among Arabic language book publishers. In the first case, many governments and education ministries across the region are faced with a ballooning population of youth and expatriate workers who are demanding digital content delivered to them on new devices like smartphones and tablets. “Over half of the population is under 25,” says Rodrigues. The proliferation and concentration of smart devices is greatest in this age cohort. Rather than evolving from a traditional telecom structure, these emerging economies and populations are growing up in a mobile centric digital world with almost everybody having more than 1 smart device.
Delivering content to these users is going to be wireless first. Faced with such reality, governments and libraries across the Middle East are looking into digital distribution. The process has just started but an increasing number of institutions are choosing to buy digital in favor of hard copy, especially for Science, Technology and Medicine (STM) publications. Providing localized hosting and distribution infrastructure via the cloud is the business of iPublish Central.
The biggest hurdle according to Rodrigues isn’t so much using cloud computing to host and deliver content to various devices, it’s more the philosophical issue of what precisely does an education ministry “buy” from a publisher if the physical book is no longer the fundamental unit. Historically, libraries and schools have based their purchasing and lending practices on actual books. Once the content moves into the cloud, what do library customers technically “own?” Do libraries have access in perpetuity across entire populations to private businesses? If so, how robust, reliable and stable is their access? Or what if a government ministry licenses content from an international or local publisher, can that content be hosted on local severs?
The upshot for both sides of electronic content transactions—not to mention intermediaries and service providers like iPublish Central—is that the previous coupling between property (a physical book) and control over what you could do with it is severed in an electronic environment. This leads to a situation whereby publishing houses need to re-acquire rights before they can digitize the material and deliver it via the cloud.
This is not a situation unique to the Arab world. Given new media devices such as the Wink (“without ink”) e-reader from India as well as fast growing electronic media retail outlets like the Lebanese company NWF.com these issues promise to be more pressing than what we’ve seen to date in North America and Europe.
John du Pre Gauntt is a cloud computing and media consultant and blogger — and a recent addition to the MCDM faculty. You can read more from John at media-dojo.com.