Developing market

Software development has traditionally been focused in markets like Western Europe, the US and Japan, but as technologies like virtualisation and cloud computing cut down on the need for large development teams, is the Middle East ready to take on the world?

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Developing market
By Staff Writer Published  October 10, 2011

Software development has traditionally been focused in markets like Western Europe, the US and Japan, but as technologies like virtualisation and cloud computing cut down on the need for large development teams, is the Middle East ready to take on the world?

Despite a huge swathe of people speaking Arabic from Western Africa all the way to the Levant, local software development has always struggled to take off in the region. Factors as diverse as piracy through to English’s position as the business language in the region have often conspired to put pay to local software development outside of Arabisation of software developed elsewhere.

However, with the rise of new technologies that promise to streamline a number of the processes that have up until now required large teams of highly skilled individuals, large scale development of software in the region is once again looking like a real possibility.

“Software development picked up as a promising industry in the region around the late 1990s,” says Ahmed Adel, sales and operations director at Microsoft Middle East and Africa’s Developer and Platform Evangelism team. “But there was a slow down – and perhaps even a stagnation – that occurred five to seven years ago.”

According to Adel, the main reason for the failure of the software sector to manifest itself in the region was that the larger development houses failed to continue expanding. This had a knock on effect on university admissions, resulting in the region’s computer science departments being shut down.

Despite that initial set back, there are signs that the region is once again investing in software development as a fundamental facet of the IT industry. However, the biggest challenge currently facing the industry is moving away from Arabisation of software, toward the creation of more original content.

“We’re still at the early stages of software development in the Middle East,” argues Deepak Narain, systems engineer manager at VMware MENA. “There is still a mismatch between the amount of talent coming out of universities, and the amount of development I see in the local market. A lot of what I see [in the Middle East] is just customisation of applications that were not designed with the regional market, and its users, in mind.”

It is a point echoed by the managing director of Sage Software Middle East and India, Vikram Suri. “The Middle East is quickly emerging as a strategic venue for software development; but so far, it has been limited to the Arabisation of software that is already available in other languages, mainly English.”

The Arabisation of software is also having a profound impact on the development of the IT industry in areas of the Middle East not traditionally associated with high technology. While most of the investment in IT over the past decade has been in infrastructure – and much of that focused in the cash-rich GCC markets – current trends in the software sector suggest that the leading forces are away from the Arabian Peninsula. “Egypt and Jordan are now seen as the main centres for software development in the Middle East,” states Suri. Manish Bhardwaj, marketing manager at Autodesk Middle East, echoes Suri’s suggestion that Egypt and Jordan are emerging as the key software development markets, but adds that Syria and Iran are both rapidly developing their software industries and are catching up.

There are issues though. Suri warns that despite there being 300 million Arabic speakers, English’s position as the modern business world’s lingua franca means that there are instances where Arabisation simply isn’t necessary. Because of this, he said that companies need to seriously consider the need for an Arabised version. “There have been instances where companies go through lengths to develop an Arabic version of their software, only to find that the English edition remains much more popular.”

However, with the rise of new technologies, it is becoming more feasible for small development teams to develop their own software from scratch without the need for the large personnel counts that used to be part and parcel of software development.

The team doesn’t even need to be in the same office, or even country, argues Adel. “The evolution of software development tools and environments has greatly increased the productivity of individuals in a company, and offers alternatives to work structures based on proven methodologies.

“The rise of application lifecycle management tools allow teams that are geographically dispersed, with multiple roles, to collaborate on projects around the clock, while optimising their efforts and results towards a very high bar,” he adds.

Despite that, there is resistance to the adoption of such tools from within the development community itself.

“Most staff coming from these software development companies are still sceptical about the growth of any technology in this area, since the development of any such product brings with it automation, and the threat of a reduction in staff,” reveals Suri.

Not all technologies though are necessarily about helping the development process directly, as Narain explains. “Virtualisation can help enormously. I remember when I first came across VMware as a developer. Overnight, I was able to replace a lab full of machines with a single powerful desktop. “At their very core, virtualisation and cloud are about reducing barriers to entry and time to market,” he adds. “Starting from using virtualisation to manage several complex development environments easily, through to deploying entire companies in the cloud, the cost of building and releasing an application has come down drastically.”

“You can use virtualisation to create on-demand, collaborative sandboxes for developers – on a developer cloud. You could even build one internally. Developers can set up environments on demand, tear them down, share them, and archive them... all from a centralised library.”

Cloud also has potential. “Cloud computing opens new doors and creates new opportunities, but it requires developers to update their skills,” says Adel. “The key to success in the cloud will be how fast developers can adapt to the new possibilities to capture the biggest part of the opportunity.”

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