When you hear about the Internet and the Middle East, it's usually in reference to online message boards where militants claim responsibility for attacks or about overprotective Muslim countries shutting down MySpace to prevent the mingling of the sexes.
Today, we bring you a different online project: the effort to create a region-specific, comprehensive search engine. Think Google for the Arab world.
My friend Sherif Omar happens to be the project manager for Onkosh, the most ambitious attempt yet to build an Arab-specific search engine. Sherif is a software developer affiliated with Orascom Telecom, the Egyptian telecommunications giant that, among many other holdings, provides cell-phone service for Algeria, Iraq, Egypt and several other African and Asian countries. Orascom boasts more than 60 million subscribers.
Onkosh is live, though still in its early phase -- the official launch is scheduled for September to coincide with Gitex, the region's leading IT and software expo. However, it's already generating buzz among Arab bloggers and other Internet users who have tried in vain to find a reliable clearinghouse for Arab-related music, news, images and message boards.
One blogger wrote, "We always came across attempts to establish a proper Arabic search engine. Among those were araby.com and mersal and masrawy and whatnot. Recently, I came across what may be the perfect not just Arabic but -- as they call it -- English/Arabic search engine." Another blogger who stumbled across Onkosh deemed it, "the coolest Arabic search engine to date."
Here are 10 questions for Sherif about what Internet users can expect of Onkosh, and how non-Arabs can use the site, www.onkosh.com.
Q. What does Onkosh mean?
A. Onkosh means “to unearth” in colloquial Arabic. We wanted a name that would stand out and was easily recognizable.
Q. How is it similar to Google? How is it different?
A. It’s like Google in that it offers different search services in an easy and clean interface. It’s different in that it’s focused on the Arab Internet user. We have a lot of features that are specific for Arab searches. We have an English-to-Arabic transliterator. Our blog search is focused only on Arab-related blogs, unlike other blog searches, which are general. We have a file search, which allows you to search for music and music videos and applications on user forums. Forums are a very large part of Internet use in the Arab world. They use them not only for discussion but also for downloading music and music videos. Onkosh also "understands" the Arabic language. It doesn’t only search for text, it understands what you’re searching for and improves the results.
Q. What’s the coolest feature?
A. The coolest feature would have to be "Bel3araby,” our English-to-Arabic transliterator. It means you can enter English characters for any Arabic phrase and it will provide you the equivalent Arabic characters to search for. It’s not translation, it’s transliteration. For example, if you want to look for the Egyptian newspaper Al Masry al Youm, you can type that in, using English characters, and it will return you the Arabic results. Another cool feature is Onkosh.mobi, which is the mobile version of Onkosh and it’s the first Arabic search engine to have a version you can use on your cell phone. It’s a free service that anybody can access. We even have Bel3araby on the mobile version, so you don’t need an Arabic keypad to search.
Q. How can people who don't speak Arabic use Onkosh?
A. Onkosh is focused on Arab users, but a large portion of Arab Internet use is in English, or, in the Maghreb, in French. For example, a large number of the top Egyptian blogs are actually written in English. Onkosh has an interface in both English and Arabic. Currently, the news and forums sections have only Arabic content, but we plan to add an English section to the news and have English-language papers from the Arab world. The rest of the site – blogs, Web and image – all have content in Arabic, English and French. But, again, the majority is Arabic because that is our focus.
Q. Other groups have tried in the past to create Arabic-language search engines and they never really took off. Why should we expect this one to be different?
A. The Arab Internet market is growing rapidly. It’s still a pretty small market. There have been a few half-hearted attempts to enter the market. It’s not a market where anyone is going to make serious money anytime soon. We’re in this for the long haul. We realize the Arab Internet market is young, but it’s growing and we’re continually adapting to the Arab users' needs. Google Arabic doesn’t really have Arab-specific features. We’ve seen in markets such as Russia and China that Google has not fared very well against local competition that really understands the local users’ needs.
Q. Where is it based? How many staff are working on this? What’s the project cost, or at least a range? This is an Orascom venture, so this must be pretty well funded, right?
A. The Onkosh team is based in Cairo and we have a staff of about 10 people working on it. As for money and funding, Orascom is committed to the project for the long term and sees great growth potential. I’m not at liberty to discuss budgets.
Q. In your research to create Onkosh, what kinds of trends or patterns have you discovered about Arab Internet use? Anything surprising?
A. There is a lot of usage for religion-related discussions, entertainment news and music and video files. There is convergence – Arab users are getting into social networking sites now, they are becoming very Internet savvy and there is a big increase in Arabic content on the Web.
Q. The Web is controversial in the Middle East. Governments often shut down opposition Web sites and prosecute bloggers. Jihadists recruit and disseminate messages over the Internet. Many porn and social-networking sites are blocked in Muslim nations. How will Onkosh deal with that and has there been any pressure from the Egyptian government as to what content is included?
A. We perform no form of censorship whatsoever. We index all relavent content out there. We don’t exclude anything because we think it’s controversial or might offend somebody. We’re impartial. Internet censorship in Egypt, while it exists, is not as widespread as reported or as serious as some other countries in the region.
Q. Are there news offerings that you can't find elsewhere? It's been difficult to find a good, comprehensive list of Arab media.
A. Not yet. Our news aggregator now is pretty much on par with Google. In the near future, we hope to make our news aggregator more country specific.
Q. What’s been the biggest obstacle in creating Onkosh?
A. The biggest obstacle has been the technical challenge of building a search engine that understands the Arabic language, as well as the fact that it’s a really small market and there is a serious lack of statistics about Arab Internet behavior. We went to cyber cafes and did interviews to try to understand how people use the Internet and what features we could offer to make their lives easier.