OK. So Google is coming town (Amman, that is). And no, this is NOT about them opening an office in Jordan.
What’s happening is G-Jordan. A three-day Google event for computer scientists, software developers and tech entrepreneurs. From the 12 to the 14th of December, Google will be “flying in” 20 Googlers to rub shoulders with our tech community. The same thing will also be happening in Cairo just a few days earlier.
I am blogging about this because I got invited to a little press conference which was done via a video-link (using Google Talk, of course) with Google’s Regional Manager for the Middle East and North Africa Ari Kesisoglu, who apparently was sitting in Boston if I understood correctly.
Although I was wearing my blogger/journalist hat, neither I nor my “fellow” journalists were able to get much out of Ari beyond what was in the press release and the event’s website:
Some of the questions and answers went roughly as follows:
Q: Will Google acquire any companies in the region? A: We continue to look at the region but we can’t comment on stuff like that?
Q: Is the Arab world a profitable or loss-making region for Google? A: We don’t discuss this stuff.
Q: You say Arabic content needs development. Is Google working with Arabic publishers? A: We are a platform for people to create content. We created Google Ejabat. We don’t create the content ourselves.
Q: Will you open an office in Jordan? A: We evaluate our options all the time. This is not a matter of opening an office in this or that country. We look at what works.
Frankly, I left the press conference a bit frustrated. Frustrated of Google but also of also our own regional “situation”.
Now don’t get me wrong. I am probably still a Google fanboy. Like most people who are on the net, I love Google stuff. I mean, nothing beats their search (yet). Gmail powers my company’s email system (for free!). Google Analytics is a critical tool for the websites we build. Google sends me a check every month for the ads it sells for me on 360east.com. My goodness, I am even thinking of buying an Android phone!
So where is my frustration coming from?
On the G-Jordan website Google says that they are “very excited to meet with computer science students, software developers, small businesses and tech entrepreneurs in Jordan.” The Googlers flying in want to demonstrate “Google’s suite of products that are driving innovation in technology, business across the globe and here in the Middle East.”
Sounds great, no?
Well actually, it sounds a bit like a “sales” visit.
To be fair, the agenda of G-Jordan also talks about getting developers together and also includes a VC/Funding panel. So maybe G-Jordan is more than just a big promotion for Google’s products. But I still can’t shake off the feeling that there is an immense imbalance when it comes to Google’s relationship with this vast region. It’s an imbalance that is pretty typical: a powerful American tech giant (think Microsoft, Oracle or even Apple) coming to a region where not much knowledge or tech creation is happening. Arabs have, for a long time, been pure importers of technology. The case with Google is not much different.
Google tells us it wants to “invest in the region”. Kesisoglu said that the region represents an exciting business growth opportunity for Google.
If this simply means that Google wants to sell more ads on the region’s web and lock in more and more developers to use its technology, then frankly the region would not have gained much.
To be honest, Google’s innovation track record in the region has not been very exciting so far (given how powerful the company is).
The major region-specific original product has been Google Ejabat. Not exactly a groundbreaking service. Then there was the “ta3reeb” that allows you to type Arabic in English letters and get it automatically converted to Arabic script, which was a problem that Yamli had solved earlier, with more elegance and focus I might add.
Of course there is also Google Translate, which includes Arabic translation. I don’t use that service, but I am sure it helps a lot of Arabs who don’t read English to surf the web and make some sense of it. Yet, a quick comparison of the quality of Google Translate’s English to Arabic translation with its English to German translation shows a huge difference in favor of German.
Google Maps was one of the first service to map Amman. But even here competing offerings from Nokia (and even a local startup) were better.
Yet Google’s sites (including YouTube, of course) are the most used sites in all Arab countries. Google is king, everywhere. Their current products are doing amazingly well, so their global innovation is enough. What more do we expect them to do?
The bottom line is that Google will not take innovation in the region and innovation in tackling the Arabic language seriously, if the region fails to seriously challenge Google technologically.
Where is the Arab company that was able to deliver better Arabic search using morphological analysis?
Where is the Arabic content company that can claim to be a big audience magnet and steal audiences away from Google?
Where is the Arab tech startup which has a global audience or a technology that is attractive for Google?
As a global corporation that is “doing business” in the Arab region, Google probably does have a responsibility (and an interest) in pushing the tech industry forward in this market. And for PR purposes it will “do something” to prove it is committed.
But I think it is high time for our local tech geeks, our tech entrepreneurs, our investors and our government to start the long, hard work of building startups and technologies that will cause Google (and other global tech giants) to REALLY pay attention and sit up in its seat.
Let’s remember that Google has not one but two offices in Israel and four offices in India. Politics aside, what makes Israel and India attractive is the power of their own tech development efforts.
The message to all our local geeks: by all means, go to the G-Jordan days next week and learn as much as you can from the Googlers coming to town. But don’t just replace your previous Microsoft ASP.NET skills with some “Google skills”. Think of creating something which Google is willing to buy. Or even better, compete with Google locally or even globally.
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