No ISP is an island
Sri Lanka’s online presence has increased exponentially over the last couple of years, with more and more service providers joining in. The market leader has been Lanka Internet, which has aggressively targeted both commercial and domestic users by providing Internet presence to companies from the banking, tourism and retail industries. Its website <www.lanka.net> is probably the most comprehensive at the moment, featuring as it does the Lanka Business Web, a handy collection of the main commercial sites. It also contains other interesting places like a Virtual Gallery of Sri Lankan Art, TNL Radio online (which you can listen to with a RealAudio setup), and several weekly and daily newspapers as well.
A strong competitor is CeyCom with its site <www.ccom.lk>. From energy companies to casinos, finance and banking institutions to hotels, Lions and Rotary to professional organisations such as the Association of General Practitioners and the Chartered Institute of Marketing Newspapers, all have their sites with CeyCom.
For slightly less formal news about what´s happening in Sri Lanka, the web surfer can try the site maintained by Web Syndicate <www.xasia.lk#>, a small but fast-growing company. Their Explore Asia site contains in- ´ formation on regular events in the island, as well as information on restaurants, shopping, bars, clubs and other cool places.
Online news agencies
It is possible to get Sri Lankan news culled from a number of sources (including a strangely large volume from Xinhua, the Chinese news agency) sent direct to an email address. One of the best and longest-running is SLNet. Covering everything from the latest military and political news to current events and sports, it also features articles sent to the service by members on subjects as diverse as refugees fleeing the worsening human rights situation within the country, to the US Visa Lottery, the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka and appeals for help for bone marrow transplants. SLNet also provides regular news about the country. It is a not-for-profit effort supported most commendably by LacNet. To subscribe, a message has to be sent to with the note “help”.
The Daily Resume on Sri Lanka <firstname.lastname@example.org> is a condensed news bulletin, published every working day, that covers important political and commercial news in the Sinhala and Tamil press, which are not reflected in the English papers. The site covers 19 newspapers and tabloids and also includes the only Jaffna paper Uthayan (as and when available).
The publishers of Daily Resume claim that “It is the vernacular press that not only reflects, but also creates, the public opinion in Sri Lanka and a good knowledge of what is being exposed to the general public through these publications will definitely help you determine the flowing directions of Sri Lankan public opinion at this crucial juncture… English-reading Sri Lankans and those who are interested in Sri Lanka are exposed only to the English media, and may not be quite aware of the true sentiments of the majority.”
“They just don´t get it”
Vasee Nesiah has been a major player in the Internet market in the country since its inception and now runs MediaSolutions, a multimedia producer that services the Asian and European markets from its base in Colombo. Answering some questions via email, this is what he had to say on the Internet in Sri Lanka:
As you know Lanka Internet used to have the best web team – over a hundred web sites of every possible sort, approximately five million rupees in web development revenue over 16 months, almost every major newspaper and magazine published online, live cricket commentary since the 1995 Cricket World Cup, Live Radio since 1996, and so on.
However, there has been a sudden drop in Lanka Internet´s activities which has allowed CeyCom to come to the fore. They have pretty much got the mix right and their site is improving regularly. Although there are several other small-time web site developers almost all of them are destined to remain small timers.
They just don´t get it. It´s not enough to convert a Microsoft Word document to “html” or even fiddle around with something like Microsoft Frontpage. To be successful you need to have two things: first, access to resources, and ISPs are best positioned to do that; and secondly, an understanding of what makes the Web tick. Fancy graphics are useless if nobody visits your site. At its peak, Lanka Internet´s site had about 2.5 million hits, but that number in itself means nothing. What matters is that there were about 5000-plus repeat visitors, that´s why a site is successful. You have to have repeat visits.
As far as I am concerned, the web business has peaked. This is true in Sri Lanka and other countries. Static web sites are no longer enough to cut through the clutter. There are 17 zillion sites out there. You have to have sites that function, sites that do something more than display text and animate graphics. That´s the long and short of it.
Not that the Web is devoid of any commercial benefits whatsoever. Small- and medium-sized businesses gain the most – some of them have struck it rich. I know of a gem merchant and an aquarium fish exporter who did quite well for themselves (a few millions in orders) on the Web. And, of course, the travel trade always does well on the Web. However, the long-standing impediment to genuine web commerce – transaction capability – remains the same in Sri Lanka as throughout the world. Local banks must learn to accept credit cards without signature verification. Without that, local web sites will remain stagnant.
But despite the advances, there is still not enough interconnectivity practised in the market, which would lead to increased traffic through all sites and a higher profile for Sri Lanka on the Net altogether. This is perhaps due to the belief that increased traffic generates increased profits which should not be passed on to competitors. But since Lankan web companies still don´t seem to have cottoned on to the potential of web-based advertising, this argument seems slightly pointless.