C'est geek c'est chic

A Microsoft developer forum kicked off a new Gulf States initiative to encourage more local software development, but is this just the software giant's reaction to the rise of open source in the Middle East asks Eliot Beer?

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By  Eliot Beer Published  June 1, 2006

|~|vimal20.jpg|~|Sethi: These are guys who aren’t necessarily going to be very enthusiastic about wearing a suit and a tie to an event|~|In the upmarket surroundings of the Mall of the Emirates in Dubai, shoppers may well have been surprised to see a number of people proclaiming geek-hood on their black and white t-shirts - geekdom being something many might not normally consider an attribute to be celebrated.

But this was the Microsoft Developers' Forum, held at the cinema complex at the mall in late April and early May. It was the first developer event of its kind from the software giant in the Gulf - and geeks were in.

Vimal Sethi, Microsoft developer and partner evangelist for the Gulf region, is very enthusiastic about the dress code for the event: “These are guys who aren't necessarily going to be very enthusiastic about wearing a suit and a tie; having this event here in a cinema, and with everyone in jeans and t-shirts, it makes it a more relaxed atmosphere.”

The aim of the event was to provide local developers working with Microsoft software development tools the opportunity to put their questions to experts from London and the US. It also gave them a first-hand look at some of the latest platforms and tools from Microsoft.

Sethi, proudly displaying his 'Geek' shirt, says this is part of a wider drive by the company to increase levels of support on the ground for developers in the region. He was brought in from London in January 2006 for this specific task.

But Andrea Di Maio, research vice president for government at Gartner, thinks that Microsoft’s motives for increasing its local support for developers in the region may have less to do with generosity to its developer community, and more to do with feeling threatened. He suggests the formation of local developer communities by the firm has followed the rise of open-source ecosystems which have the potential to usurp the Redmond giant.

“Microsoft is using this same approach in other parts of the world where it sees the potential for being replaced by an open-source ecosystem, so that indicates that it has identified this region as a potential area for disruption,” says Di Maio. “If they were comfortable they would just stay with the sales force, so they understand they actually have to go one extra step. And this means that somebody could come up at some point in time and develop a Dubai open-source community, or even at a regional level.”

Sethi gives this opinion a qualified rejection, and is clearly happy to take on the open source argument: “I would definitely say that we take competition very seriously; personally I think competition is very healthy. To be honest, I haven't seen too many significant projects which we have lost to open source. Not to go into details about open source versus our platform, but you've got to look at the bigger picture; there's this myth that it's free - nothing's free. Once you do the TCO and ROI calculations, it doesn't work out to open source's advantage, and we're quite confident about that.”||**|||~|geek20.jpg|~|Dare to bare: Geeks were in fashion at Dubai’s Mall of the Emirates for once.|~|He goes on to reaffirm what he sees as his main reasons for being in the region, and setting up the developer network: “For me I just wanted to make sure that we bring developers the latest MS technology - that was the main driver for me. The reason I moved to Dubai was the vision of building the knowledge-based economy - that was the exciting part for me. You need to have that skills transfer, you need to educate people and get them excited about going into new industries. We need to make sure that, with the government leaders, we increase the skill sets and the capacity of the workforce. So it wasn't: 'Oh my God, Linux has taken over our market’ - far from it.”

Whatever the reasons for its new interest in local developers, there is no doubting Sethi's zeal, and the potential value for enterprises and organisations in the Middle East of having an increased level of support for in-house development teams. A delegation of programmers from Emirates Airline was just one of the groups from local enterprises at forum, with others being more reticent to have their names revealed. Sethi explains how he sees the value proposition for CIOs who might be looking at whether it is worth sending their development staff to events such as the recent forum.

“If you're working on a project for Emirates, for example, and it's a mission-critical application - which most of them are - why not have the opportunity to speak to the person who wrote the code, who wrote the book, who's been doing this for the last 20 years - someone who's seen as a real expert in the market,” says Sethi. “And then to be able to make a connection with them, so that when you're back at work and you're up at two o'clock in the morning and you need an answer to your question, you know where to send it. That edge is super important for enterprises which are working on mission-critical applications.”

Sethi and his team are already planning the next round of events and initiatives for the region; these include a number of MS .NET clubs - the first, at Dubai Women's College, has just opened - as well as getting the local developer community involved in some of the international competitions the firm organises. He is also considering more events based around the cinema idea, where developers can sit and listen to a presentation from an expert in a relaxed situation. But for now, he is happy with the way the inaugural forum went.

“I think the format worked well, and we made sure there was plenty of time for developers to network. In addition to Microsoft people, we invited our MVPs (most valued professionals) - they typically work for one of our customers, or an ISV (independent software vendor),” says Sethi. “We have specialist MVPs for different areas; Exchange MVPs, application development MVPs, Office MVPs. We made sure our MVPs are involved, so they can engage with our developers. We had excellent feedback for the forum - we got 96% positive feedback from the participants, so we were extremely pleased with that.”||**||

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