Global Editions

Pakistan’s evolution

By Salaina Haroon

Pakistan’s ICT landscape has come a long way.

WE listen to terms like the Cloud, Big Data, The Internet of Things, 5G, Security, Dark Web being bandied around quite often locally and across the international techspeak. Little do we realize the path that technology generally has taken to get here, especially Pakistan’s technology landscape.

The industry has been around for ages, much longer than it’s generally assumed. With IBM setting up shop in Pakistan back in the 1960s and Systems Ltd., one of our local IT behemoths following suit in 1977, governmental organizations like the Pakistan Computer Bureau (now the National IT Board) and associations like the Computer Society of Pakistan worked through the 1980s and 1990s providing platforms for discussion, conferences et al.

The entry of the first dial up connections in Pakistan with IBM/ATTGlobal connections brought an initial taste of what the internet would bring. People began to slowly find their way around technology and from just the simple hardware resellers, by 1998, the first slew of ourversion-of-the-internet began to happen. As the dotcom took shape internationally, suddenly everyone in Pakistan had an interest in “IT.” And there was a lot to report. Hosting companies – mother of the modern day cloud, internet service providers, IT conferences, call centers, software
companies saw a tremendous boom from the late 1990s right up to a high growth which peaked in 2008 when Wateen conducted the world’s largest WiMAX rollout in Pakistan. Other wireless service providers like wi-tribe and Qubee soon followed.

Local hardware companies like Raffles, Inbox, Viper, Mango PC, JBS were competing head-to-head with multinational
vendors. A lot of associations also sprang up, from the Internet Association of Pakistan to the Pakistan Call Centre Associations to others. Pakistan Software Export Board was also set up alongside Pakistan Software Houses Association (P@SHA) to represent the needs and lobby of the massively growing software industry. Provincial IT boards were soon to follow in the mid 2000s with Punjab Information Technology Board (PITB) one of the most active to date.

Last but not the least, the largest contributor to the ICTs that has brought about immense foreign direct investment into the country over the past decade-and-a-half, the telecoms. Companies such as Instaphone, Paktel had given us a first taste of mobile telephony in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The first onslaught of alternative wireless telephony started with Worldcall Telecom Limited and Go CDMA providing
wireless sets with internet connections. But the real changemakers came with GSM’s entry in a big way to Pakistan. With Mobilink, Ufone, Telenor, Warid and then finally Zong we saw people buying SIMs and mobiles. First came GSM, then Edge and then 3G. Nokia made its strongest sales in the these telecom years in South Asia and it looked like nothing would be able stop its sales, though eventually a plethora of Chinese companies did. And they helped almost every third Pakistani gain access to modern technology.

The Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL) itself was partially sold to Etisalat and with that it became a bigger and more streamlined telco on its own, today providing everything from wireless data services to telephony to smart TV and the cloud for enterprises.

Then the explosion of new media started to take shape. Everyone wanted a website by 2003-4. Hosting and development companies like Netaccess, Nexus, and MAGSNET were making a killing. The ISPs like Brain, Nexlinx, Cubexs, Supernet, Cybernet were providing data, hosting and many backend web solutions. We even had our very own first version of online retail of hardware sales, Belicity, way back in 2006.

Big name software/system integration companies also genuinely took off then specially with local banks and Telco’s requiring IT services. Systems, Techlogix, Techaccess, Infotech, Si3 (now defunct), Premier Systems, Five Rivers and many more, were supplying services locally and internationally. Companies, like Mixit, Netsol (the first Pakistani company on Nasdaq), i2i and Convo have created big buzz out there in the Silicon Valley and these are just a few.

Big name software/system integration companies also genuinely took off then specially with local banks and telco’s requiring IT services. Systems, Techlogix, Techaccess, Infotech, Si3 (now defunct), Premier Systems, Five Rivers and many more, were supplying services locally and internationally. Companies, like Mixit, Netsol (the first Pakistani company on Nasdaq), i2i and Convo have created a big buzz out there in the Silicon Valley and these are just a few.

Multinational tech companies which had been limited to IBM, Intel, Siemens, NCR and HP also started setting up local offices. Microsoft, Teradata, Nokia, Oracle, Cisco, Fire Eye, Dell, EMC, Acer, Twinmos, Imation were amongst many to do so. Unlike today every channel on TV wanted to report tech until 2008 and had shows or slots for it. There was just so much to tell.

The industry saw an upward trend for about a decade, then there was a fade-out to black for a bit and things began to settle into quality versus quantity. The global and local economic downturn indicators since 2009 meant a reality check for growth worldwide and especially Pakistan. With internet penetration, home-based businesses have seen a rise, as has freelance work. Pakistan is perhaps one of the top five countries on Elance and Odesk (now known as Upwork).

New media evangelists worked tirelessly to promote monetization from the web and its benefits. Because of so many initial blogs/bloggers, meet-ups and the new media landscape, social media companies, consultants, bloggers, journalists have helped Pakistan go truly digital. Almost every company is now spending huge amounts on the social side of advertising.

Enabling Technologies, P@SHA, Nest, T2F, Bolo Bhi, Digital Rights Foundation, BytesForAll, Teethmaestro have brought internet activism into place. We have seen a lot more activity from international associations like TiE and Open with their local chapters forming strong platforms for the tech industry.

The true treasure that the internet has brought us and especially with the 3G and 4G rollout in Pakistan last year, is mobile banking and online retail. With Telenor and Tameer Bank’s Easypaisa a revolution of payments came into the industry. Though we may not have PayPal here, but this has opened a new e-corridor for Pakistan’s economy. A lot of money that was not being transacted officially has come into the economy’s fold. Ufone, Mobilink, Warid were quick to follow with their services and now Telenor is about to launch Easypay which will make it easy for people to run more commerce online. This revolution in banking for the common man has also jump-started online retail in a big way. From Rocket Internet which has about six tech retail startups in Pakistan, to many others, we have seen online commerce go big. Life is truly digital. Daraz, Kaymu, Foodpanda, Savaree, TCS Mall, Shopdaily, Forrun and a plethora of offline product manufacturers and vendors like startups Popinjay, Markhor and large Sana Safinaz type fashion houses are offering everything online.

Lifestyles are changing and adapting to the new wave of technology. Sofizar, Naseeb Networks and ROZEE.PK brought a true taste of Silicon Valley funding to Pakistan. The new blaze of online tech blogs reporting everything from phone prices to entrepreneurship. At last count there were several hundred.

Never before in my decade-and-a-half career in tech media have I seen such excitement within the industry. The whole start up “phraseology” actually came into being. MITEF-Enterprise Forum in 2007 began their annual Business Acceleration Program (BAP) competitions which are responsible for a lot of local tech companies going global today including names like Solo Insights. Saif Centre of Innovation, SeeNReport, Plan9 and PlanX Incubation Centers at the PITB are some other success stories. Following this we have seen a strong start up cultural outreach with incubation centers or incubators or start up competitions developing and springing up across the country.

A New York Times’ article recently quoted a McKinsey study saying that the “McKinsey Global Institute predicts that the Internet of things, a term for sensor-laden machines connected to the web, will in the year 2025 create between nearly $4 trillion to $11 trillion in economic benefits globally.” I wonder how much of that can Pakistan truly hope to encash. Based on our track record, I would say, the sky is the limit!

Salaina Haroon, an Eisenhower fellow, MD of RPG, currently also leads IDG (idg.com) Business Units in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan as regional managing director/managing editor. Some of these include CIO, CSO, PC World, Computerworld and MacWorld.

Authors
  • Owais Hassan Shaikh

    Really a nice review. I would just add two more recent successes of VC funding: Pakwheels and Zameen.com.

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