Image by Joriel "Joz" Jimenez via FlickrThe first headline I ever penned as a writer and journalist in the Middle East was for a column in 1986. I was quite proud of it (be gentle, both I and the market were young): "Software Piracy Waives the Rules".
Ever since then, the theft of intellectual property has held the Middle East market back - both in software development and in other innovations involving probably the region's greatest potential asset (oustide oil): intellectual property.
Call me optimistic, but I do believe there is a new wave of innovation washing the shores of the Middle East and it's being driven by a generation of people who have decided to explore the potential that the Internet opens up. I'm very much looking forward to ArabNet in Beirut next week, where we'll be able to see for ourselves just how that process is shaping up and perhaps gauge how strong and viable the movement is.
I have watched innovation get squashed in this region for much of my time here, a constant sadness to me. I watched the first generation Arabic software companies flounder (great innovators such as SaudiSoft, Sakhr and Nafitha sent to the wall by endemic software piracy that ripped the foundations out of their businesses and forced them out of the consumer software markets) back in the 1980s and I have watched piracy defining the market ever since - software, music and television alike - to its detriment.
Over the past twenty years, the region has been very much a consumer market - with piracy being a constant barrier to anyone considering the high cost of entry in developing, say, applications software. There have been a few highly notable exceptions to this, mostly Jordanian but also Egyptian and Lebanese - mostly involved in creating bespoke software for international markets. But innovation - software innovation and business innovation based on pretty much any form of electronic content or property - has been stifled by the piracy of intellectual property and the unwillingness of regional governments to effectively enforce the IP legislation that is in place in every country in the region now.
I've posted before about my interest in how the very many social relationships that have opened up around the region are playing a role in bringing people together - social networks, together with the physical events they are triggering such as Tweetups and even GeekFests have allowed people to share ideas and approaches and generally helped to speed an ongoing process that is being driven by a large number of organisations and initiatives that are helping to foster entrepeneurship in the Middle East - from NGOs such as The Queen Rania Centre for Entrepeneurship and the WEF backed YallaStartup! to private funds investing in new business ideas such as Middle East Venture Partners. It just takes a glance at the ArabNet website to see that there's something very definitely going on here
The wonderful thing is that now there is a new freedom: the Internet has brought a new class of web-based businesses. The one overwhelmingly marvellous thing about 'the cloud' (the idea that you can use web-based applications and services to do the stuff that you used to do on your own computer) is that you can't steal it. Software piracy is a thing of the past. People can now develop in the Middle East, for the Middle East, and actually look to gain viable revenue from their work. And users in the Middle East can pay a reasonable monthly fee for access to services - or get them for free where business models are based on free access to consumers through raising alternative sources of revenue (A la Google).
All we've got to do now is get the region's telcos to wake up and smell the coffee - embrace online business models rather than clinging to the last shreds of circuit-switched thinking. Bringing down the price of broadband should be an absolute priority - because right now the Middle East has the potential to do what IP theft has stopped it doing for decades - make money out of the intelligence of its people.