E-books Put the Accent on Arabic
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January 26, 2012


When Rasha Suleiman curls up with a tablet to read a good electronic book, she sometimes comes across old classics written by Arab poets from centuries ago.

The only problem, though, is their works are almost always translated into a language other than Arabic.

"You'd find more English translations," says Ms Suleiman, a social media executive for an advertising and public relations agency in Dubai. "You find German, French - but not Arabic."

That could be about to change.

Electronic books now outsell all print books on the major retailing site Amazon.com, while more than 30 of the top 50 titles listed on USA Today's best-seller list this month were also digital. Global revenues from e-books are forecast to grow from US$3.2 billion (Dh11.75bn) this year to $9.7bn by 2016, according to a report released by Juniper Research last month.

While experts say no one tracks overall e-book sales specifically within the UAE, the Printing & Publishing Group (PPG) in the Emirates forecasts sales of paper books to rise 5 per cent this year. It also notes more titles in Arabic are starting to come online for digital devices. "There is growth of Arabic e-books," says Ahmad bin Hassan Al Shaikh, the chairman of the PPG.

Ever since the online retailer Amazon.com first popularised the sector for e-book readers by releasing its Kindle a little more than four years ago, this market has been evolving rapidly.

In 2009, standalone e-readers were among the most popular devices in the consumer electronics world, according to a report from Research and Markets. Then came an onslaught of tablets, including Apple's iPad and Samsung's Galaxy Tab, which feature apps and features that let bookworms save their places with electronic bookmarks, highlight passages digitally and even animate certain illustrations embedded inside a book.

In short, these devices can now do everything e-readers once did -and sometimes better, customers have said.

The popularity of tablets is now expected to drive nearly 30 per cent of all e-book sales by 2016, according to Juniper. Yet makers of traditional digital readers are not ready to close the chapter on their battle over e-book sales. Some have drastically cut their prices, including Amazon. Its first Kindle, which sold for US$399 (Dh1,465), can now be found for as little as $79.

Companies with traditional e-readers, including Amazon as well as Barnes & Noble, have also added innovation to the sector by releasing full-colour, touchscreen tablets of their own that can access not only digital books, magazines and comic books - but also other content such as TV shows, movies and games. This month, the chipmaker Qualcomm announced a new e-reader from Hanvon, one of its partners.

Known as the Hanvon C18, it will be the thinnest and lightest e-reader that uses Qualcomm's energy-efficient displays called mirasol and runs on the Android operating system. A couple of other manufacturers have recently incorporated Qualcomm's lightweight displays into their own e-reading devices.

Combined, the sales of both tablets and e-readers nearly doubled this winter holiday gift-giving season in the US.

The number of Americans who now own at least one of these gadgets has jumped from 18 per cent last month to 29 per cent this month, according to a survey released by the Pew Research Centre on Monday.

Among some gadget lovers here, lesser-known models may prove popular for their stronger support of Arabic e-books. "Quite a few Kindle competitors, such as jetBook and Onyx Boox60, now support Arabic," says David Ashford, the former general manager of AppsArabia, which is based in Abu Dhabi and invests in the best app ideas within the Middle East and North Africa (Mena).

eAlim EL1000, which calls itself an "Islamic iPad", retails for $299 and has a colour screen that can display the complete Islamic Encyclopedia, passages from the Quran, plus older books that cover Islamic history and other topics.

In response to the growing demand for Arabic e-books, more software developers based in the UAE and the wider Mena region have been stepping in with helpful apps, Mr Ashford says.

One of these apps - iKitab, which is free on Apple's iTunes App Store - says it links to thousands of Arabic titles.

Rufoof is another free option for the iPad and iPhone, and it is preparing a version for Android devices such as Samsung's tablets. This one has been downloaded about 90,000 times, its developer says, and connects to more than 3,500 e-books, magazines and manuals. About 70 per cent of these titles are free, with nearly all of them in Arabic.

"We're planning to sign contracts with big English publishers to add some of their content, as well as sign contracts to translate some into Arabic and publish exclusively in Arabic," says Mohamad Al Hasan, who oversees business development at Rufoof Online.

Ms Suleiman recently discovered another free app of her own. Called Obeikan Store, it works equally well on both of her tablets - the iPad as well as Galaxy Tab. She says it also functions just as well as iBooks, Apple's programme and focuses on English titles.

Ms Suleiman says of Obeikan, "I like it more."