Taking the initiative

The brief visit of Microsoft's chief executive to the region last week to announce a string of initiatives is yet another sign the Middle East is growing in importance to the industry's big players. IT Weekly examines the substance behind the software giant's rhetoric.

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By  Administrator Published  May 3, 2007

If Steve Ballmer looked a little blearly-eyed as he met members of the Middle East's media in Doha, Qatar, last week, it was hardly surprising: the Microsoft CEO was in the country for just half a day before jetting off to Kuwait for another half day stop.

While his visit to the region may have been brief even by the standards of CEO-trips, it was certainly welcome; Ballmer signed off on high-profile partnership agreements with the governments of both countries during his whistle-stop tour.

Actually, as Ballmer jokingly pointed out in the Qatar press conference, the actual signing was somewhat staged, with the memorandum of understanding (MoU) being signed by regional executives for Microsoft.

Regardless of whose signature makes it on to the final documents, Dr Hessa Al-Jaber, secretary general of ictQatar, the country's ICT regulator, said having Ballmer in the country was still a statement of intent on Microsoft's part. "It shows they are investing in this," she told IT Weekly.

For both countries, the partnership will involve Microsoft providing consulting, support and intellectual property for initiatives in education, healthcare and e-government. Microsoft also announced it was opening an innovation centre in Kuwait, one of 110 such centres located around the world.

In Qatar, Microsoft has committed to provide ictQatar with "advice, assistance and tangible initiatives in the provision of know-how and expertise" in using ICT.

In the Doha press conference, Ballmer himself described his presence in Qatar as "a really exciting first visit for me" and said that he had been "very surprised at the focus" on ICT within the country.

"We are very focused on making concrete progress. This partnership has many pieces to it. We will focus on e-government, e-education, and e-health, provide skills and new ways of learning first in schools, and then spreading to the workforce and teach computer skills and e-literacy to the youth of Qatar and its government," Ballmer told reporters.

"This is a very computer-advanced society in some ways and in other ways there is, as Dr Hessa said, much opportunity for improvement and to have this as being not only a great place to do business but also to be a laboratory for leading-edge research, development of ICT companies and education," he added.

"I am sure that this strategic partnership agreement that we are signing today is really just a first step to a much broader partnership," he went on to say.

Ballmer said both Microsoft and ictQatar were "very focused on making concrete progress not just signing a nice-sounding agreement".

After the press conference, Dr Al-Jaber told IT Weekly "concrete proposals" from Microsoft would not come until June, although the MoU covered at least a dozen projects for the two to work together on.

These include a proposed School Technology Innovation Centre to build awareness around new technologies, the establishment of IT academies at schools and colleges, and the development of an Arabic digital literacy curriculum.

Ali Faramawy, Microsoft's vice president for EMEA, said education was a key priority for the company, and it would provide advisory services for both Kuwait's and Qatar's governments.

However, such advice would not amount to a lock-in for Microsoft software and products in schools, Faramawy insisted. "This is not an exclusive deal," he said.

Nor were Microsoft executives particularly keen to detail exactly how much the firm is investing in the region through these partnerships.

Ballmer declined to give a specific figure, but said it was "a significant effort" for the company.

"We have approximately 20 people here in Qatar. We are going to take a significant percentage of our bandwidth here, we're going to leverage a lot of software and materials that are going to come from Microsoft elsewhere in the world," he said.

"It is not an investment per se, nor is that something that is particularly needed by the Qatari government, the focus is on knowledge and skills transfer," he added.

According to Faramawy, the next three months will be the critical period for the partnerships, with all sides keen to ensure their success. So maybe Ballmer will make a longer visit soon.

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