Arabic on the Internet: Microsoft and Arabization

Microsoft, being the main producer of operating systems and applications for personal computers for about a half century, had a lot of impact on Arabic and Computing. This article details some of that impact, both from the technology point of view, as well as from the business angle.

The Beginning

Initally, Microsoft did not supply Arabic for their MS-DOS operating system. They seemed disinterested in the market at first, and users often complained about this lack of attention. Microsoft attributed that to the size of the market being too small to warrant attention.

This piece of the market left to independant software vendors (ISVs). Some like 01 Systems had good commerical products, such as al-Nafitha, which allowed the user to select from several different code pages.

Various small vendors in the Arab region produced their own Arabization, as well as drivers for printers, ...etc.

Microsoft Competes

When Windows 3.x arrived in the early 1990s, it was not Arabized at first. Making it Arabic-capable was left again to ISVs. Sakhr, which was then a subsidiary of the Kuwait based al-Alamiah, was first with an Arabization for it. Again, this was customizable, allowing various character sets and code pages to be selected.

It is at this point that Microsoft started to behave in a predatory manner, with the monopolistic tendencies it has shown in other segments of the IT market.

Microsoft lured the lead technical architect of Arabic at Sakhr to become one of its own staff. I do not recall his exact name, but he seems to be of Syrian or Lebanese origin, and with a Western first name, but Arab family name. Sakhr sued Microsoft for this, but the lawsuit was later settled.

Microsoft Becomes a Monopoly

From that point on, Arabization of Microsoft Operating Systems became solely a Microsoft game. ISVs continued to provide applications and peripherals, such as terminal emulators, printers, and such, but the platform itself was not an area open for competition.

Arabized versions of operating systems (e.g. Windows 95 and 98) and applications (e.g. Word) were released at a later date than the original launch of the product, often a year late.

In the 1980s, up to the mid-1990s, Microsoft did turn a blind eye for rampant piracy in the region. This strategy helped popularize its products with end users and developers alike, since they were virtually "free".

This is similar to what happened elsewhere. Bill Gates was quoted as late as 1998 that if companies were to pirate software, he would rather that they did so with his software than with the competition.

Calling in the Inquistion

By the mid 1990s Microsoft began to assert its "intellectual property" rights, and pushed the law enforcement authorities in the region to make sure that piracy is fought. These actions ensured Microsoft total dominance and monopoly status.

Arabs are currently around 300 million, and Arabic is the 5th most widelyspoken language in the world. For a company to gain a monopoly on anentire culture like this is simply wrong and unacceptable, but it did happen.

In Egypt

In Egypt for example, a special police force called شرطة المصنفات الفنية (Artistic Classification Police) who were in charge of enforcement of movies, songs, and books, started to extend to software, and raid small to medium businesses for specific products, such as Microsoft operating systems and applications, AutoCAD, and Oracle RDBMS. For some bizarre reason, they never bothered with things like Novel Netware, nor Apple's line.

Rumor at the time had it that some rich and powerful people made a cut with Microsoft in this inforcement.

This started happening when the US Dollar was around 3.4 Egyptian Pounds. The amount of money involved for legalizing a small business was substantial, and often prohibitive. Many businesses had no choice but to comply or risk fines and disruptions.

A few business decided to take the jump to Open Source, including my brother's business.

On the Internet

On the internet front, the Arab world joined a bit later than the rest of the world. The Microsoft monopoly on the desktop caused this type of monopoly to migrate to the internet as well. By that time, Netscape Navigator was killed off by Microsoft bundling Internet Explorer for free in its systems.

Moreover, Netscape Navigator never had good Arabic support. Again, some ISVs did release Arabic add ons for it, but they were not very good.

Also, many developers knew only Microsoft products, and thought that the world is only Microsoft. They not only use Microsoft Windows 2000 or Windows XP as an operating system, but must also use IIS, ASP, and MS SQL as well.

If this was on the server side only, it would not bother me one bit. The problem comes when these developers assume that all users have Microsoft operating systems and Internet Explorer and nothing else exists.

I once had a debate with a developer of Arabic technology at a major vendor, when he said that his application worked only with Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.x or better. I asked "What about people who use Mac?". There was no good answer for it except that this is the way it is!

Some Hope for Interoperability

This situation still exists at the time of writing this article (December 2004), but is getting better slowly.

First, Linux distributions, such as Mandrake 10.x, Fedora, and others do support Arabic to varying degrees. Konquerer, the browser of the KDE desktop product is also Arabic capable. FireFox 1.0 does support Arabic in an acceptable fashion, both on Windows and on Linux.

The reasons for the move are neither technical, philosophical nor ideological . They are pragmatic, and mainly due to the poor security model of Microsoft ActiveX that is in Internet Explorer, causing the current epidemic of spyware, malware, trojans, viruses and what have you. Therefore, people are moving towards FireFox, Opera and alternative browsers, as well as to Mac OS X and Safari out of disgust with Microsoft insecurity.

Some sites are still Microsoft centric and would not display properly except in Microsoft Internet Explorer. Yet some of the worst offenders realize this problem, and are slowly moving to standards. Al Jazeera used not to display properly, but as of the fall of 2004 has converted to a new Content Management System (made by Microsoft) that does a good job on non MS browsers and platforms.

When I browse a site that I think is important to others, but does not function in FireFox, I take the time to write to the site's webmaster about the problem. Sadly, at many sites, I never get a reply, and often I get a bounce on the email because the mailbox is full or something silly like that.

I have discussed a Arabic Browser Hall of Shame with the Egyptian Linux User Group to try to gain attention to this problem. Perhaps this will work where other methods did not.



Microsoft Half a century

Microsoft, being the main producer of operating systems and applications for personal computers for about a half a century
had a lot of impact on Arabic and Computing.

This article details some of that impact, both from the technology point of view, as well as from the business angle.

Bill Gates Date of Birth: 28 October 1955. Meaning he was 50 years 2005. The IBM PC was introduced in 1981.