Page last updated at 09:31 GMT, Friday, 15 May 2009 10:31 UK

The hi-tech battle for Africa

Digital Planet
Alka Marwaha
BBC World Service

Buttons with the Microsoft logo
Microsoft is already a dominant brand in Africa

Microsoft has defended itself against criticism over aggressive marketing techniques in Africa to win people over to its software.

“Despite the wealth of information that gets around, it's sad that sometimes reality has a hard time catching up with perception,” said Dr Cheikh Modibo Diarra, chairman of Microsoft in Africa.

“I think that that perception comes from the fact that we are very successful because wherever we are, we are competing respectfully and openly; you can verify that everywhere," he told the BBC World Service's Digital Planet programme.

For Dr Diarra, one problem alone defines Africa's situation.

“Technology wise, African needs can be summarised in one word: access," he said.

“When you talk about access, you talk about affordability of hardware, software and connectivity, which is 50 to 100 times more expensive in Africa than in the US,” said Dr Diarra.

Too aggressive

Microsoft is on its way to becoming a dominant brand in Africa, mainly through the deals made with various governments.

“We are very conscious of the environment in which we do business, where our employees and customers live, we always try to empower those communities," said Dr Diarra.

“Africa is really the last frontier in not only developing technology that is specific to people's needs, but eventually even developing new business models that will enable the emergence of local software industries, such as young people who have the skills to be able to write their own applications for their own community,” he said.

Competition time

In Africa, Microsoft faces strong competition from open-source software, in particular the Linux operating system. Many use Linux and run free counterparts to the Microsoft Office suite.

Computer keyboard keys
Open source gives people more opportunity to adapt applications to their needs

Ken Banks from Kiwanja.net has spent 15 years developing open source applications in Africa and feels that the battle between proprietary and open-source software is changing rapidly.

“Today we're seeing growing open-source programmer, developer communities in South Africa, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and other African countries.

“Clearly, if you have this informal programming sector coming up, access to source code is almost critical if they are going to be able to take advantage of these new tools that are emerging," he said.

Not all open-source software is hard to use or requires training
Ken Banks

Mr Banks feels that if programmers do not have access to source code, then much of the empowerment that Microsoft talks about, is blocked.

He also feels that even the cost of open-source software is over-exaggerated.

“Not all open-source software is hard to use or requires training," he said.

"In-fact many users wouldn't really be that interested in source code at all, they would simply download binaries and run those,” said Mr Banks.

Binaries are simply the installation files of a given application - rather than the core code.

“Open Office runs exactly like Microsoft Office but you don't need to worry about the source code being made available if you are not really that interested in getting stuck into it,” he added.

Affordability and invention

One major criticism levied at Microsoft is the cost of owning its software.

However, Dr Diarra feels that the question of affordability can be overcome by simply changing the business model.

“You buy Microsoft software, and you buy it once and for all, the cost that we tell you is the total cost for ownership”.

While others may even offer the software for free, Microsoft offers support 24/7 for all customers, so any problems encountered can be resolved without paying extra.

Microsoft has also faced criticism for one of the new programs it has developed for emerging markets, called Vine.

This helps people communicate after a disaster where the infrastructure has been destroyed or put out of commission.

For Ken Banks from Kiwanja.net, Vine replicates software already developed for such a need.

“There are already a number of tools out there, including Ushahidi.com, which is doing a very similar thing.

“Microsoft are basically trying to own the space through the development and creation of Vine.

“I don't know if people really want to have crowd-sourcing, crisis systems such as that being controlled by a single organisation who would decide what upgrades are done, when they are done, and when they are released.

“People are far more comfortable working on things like Ushahidi.com, which has managed to mobilise a large number of developers all around the world including Africa,” added Mr Banks.

Digital Planet is broadcast on BBC World Service on Tuesday at 1232 GMT and repeated at 1632 GMT, 2032 GMT and on Wednesday at 0032 GMT.

You can listen online or download the podcast .



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