The Middle East market has historically been difficult for Twitter to expand into—and not only because the text runs from right to left. But a new Arabic-language interface being introduced in 2011 is expected to change that.
Biz Stone, Twitter's co-founder, announced the upcoming launch of Twitter Arabic in an interview with David George-Cosh of Abu Dhabi anglophone The National newspaper. A Twitter spokesperson also confirmed that the Arabic-language interface is one of the firm's aims for 2011, but declined any further comment. Twitter's Arabic homepage is expected to launch in the next year. The Arabic-language interface will also coincide with an effort to boost advertising revenue from Arabic-speaking Twitter users.
Arabic will be Twitter's sixth foreign language interface. The firm previously rolled out Italian, Spanish, French, German, and Japanese homepages over the past few years. The use of Arabic-language characters will cause Twitter some technological headaches, much as their Japanese interface did. Arabic is written from right to left, with most letters having four cases. Users have found it particularly difficult to write in the language on mobile phone keypads—one of Twitter's primary interface—and have given birth to a rich subgenre of ersatz Arabic text message romanization replete with its own slang and grammar.
The Arabic-speaking Middle East has long been a weak spot for Twitter. Active communities of Twitter users exist in Egypt, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, and the other Gulf states, but user sign-up and retention rates lag far behind the Americas, Europe, and East Asia. Twitter has had much better luck with user retention in Turkey and Israel, two Middle Eastern countries whose primary alphabets have been easier to integrate into Twitter clients and tweets than Arabic.
One of Twitter's main challenges in their upcoming Middle Eastern expansion will be competition with various homegrown imitators. WeziWezi is a Jordan-based Twitter clone with an IM-based interface and Watwet is an extremely popular Twitter-like service that is integrated with Twitter (users post simultaneously to Twitter and Watwet). However, Watwet has more sophisticated viewing and sharing functions than its American counterpart. Watwet, which is also based in Jordan, had more users than Twitter as of 2009—but most of these users were Jordanians.
The gap in Arabic-language Twitter functionality has led to improvised creations that could also create headaches in the company's attempts to lure users to the homepage instead of a client. Artwitter is a web client for Twitter that is optimized for Arabic's right to left format. A desktop client called Kzalek allows users to tweet in Arabic—but the software's strongest attraction is that it translates English-language tweets into Arabic using (the often garbled) Google Language API. Kzalek is based on the Adobe AIR platform and borrows heavily from the popular English-language TweetDeck software.
For Twitter, launching an Arabic-language interface is just another salvo in their battle to draw users to their homepage or to revenue-boosting clients. The major question will be how to monetize a market with a highly diverse user base and plenty of local competition.