Clash of the titans: Open source software vs. Microsoft. The battle for Africa

I have covered the growing technology and software sector in Africa and what companies are making moves to beat the competition.  Ranging from Google, Apple and Microsoft. Came across a past article that Dr. Diarra, the chairman of Microsoft in Africa was interviewed by the BBC.  Lets look at the article.

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.

One of the quotes by Diarra is memorable:

“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.

I agree with the first part of that statement, it’s the second part that I find alarming. Coming from Microsoft, how can young people build the skills to write code when they can’t even pay for the closed software needed to run it? It’s not free, and if access (which he states earlier) is the biggest issue facing African technologists – then how does closed software fit into the equation?

Let’s say that the developer communities do emerge even with that hurdle, we’re still left with what one person wrote: “…they will be formed from programmers who are completely dependent on American software for the livelihood: it’s neo-colonialism, pure and simple.” At it’s worst then, African governments are paying for Western products, and are dependent on these large organizations to maintain and support critical systems.

The WSJ has an article how Microsoft muscles its way in and positions itself within education and government circles in Africa, thereby cutting off major revenue sources for open source developers and organizations that originate from within the continent.

Microsoft’s efforts to outflank Linux are steering cash-strapped governments away from the cheapest, most sensible solution. They say Microsoft has been locking African government agencies into costly, multiyear agreements to license its software. “African governments cannot afford long-term licensing contracts,” says Nnenna Nwakanma of the Free Software and Open Source Foundation for Africa, a Ghanaian-based nonprofit. The money, she says, would be better spent on training people to use computers and fostering homegrown software development. Microsoft says its pricing in Africa is fair, and that the company is investing heavily in community projects across the continent. “We believe we can help improve the lives of millions of people and potentially grow our own business in the long term,” says Thomas N. Hansen, Microsoft’s general manager for the region.

[Windows of Opportunity]

Some of Africa’s poorest countries also have discovered that they can’t meet the terms of a special $3 Windows package for “underserved” students around the world, announced last year by Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates. For governments to be eligible, they have to buy at least 10,000 computers that students get to keep — an expensive proposition for cash-strapped countries. To date, Microsoft says only four countries have qualified — Libya, Egypt, Russia and Mexico.

Efforts have been under way for several years to bring computers to Africa’s masses. Computer makers, including the U.S. nonprofit One Laptop Per Child, have developed low-cost laptops for poor nations. Most can use either Windows or Linux operating systems.

Linux is “open source” software, meaning its coding is available for anyone to modify. A number of software companies sell their own versions at low prices, or even give them away and offer technical support, for a fee.

In developed nations such as the U.S., Microsoft doesn’t see Linux as much of a threat to its commanding market share in software for desktop and laptop computers. But in Africa, where resources are limited and no system has completely taken root, it does.

To save money, some countries, including South Africa, Nigeria, Namibia and Ghana, have begun using open-source software such as Linux in some government ministries or schools. “Many education budgets in Africa are seriously constrained,” says Dorothy K. Gordon, director general of an information-technology institute in Ghana. “At the moment, there are very, very sound, robust open solutions out there.”

Of course, Microsoft does not come for free – the hidden price tag is not just attached to the licensing costs but also to the ownership of innovation and data. Microsoft should be supporting local developments instead of stifling them and dealing with them as competition. Since that is unlikely, it is fortunate, that the examples named above demonstrate the growth of awareness and informed decision making as well as the development of African innovations based on Open Source.

There really are two costs when dealing with software: the expense of buying and maintaining it, and the knowledge cost within the local programming community. The monetary side is a short-term cost relative to the knowledge costs (core competency) that a nation does, or does not, develop over time.

In Africa organizations have a lot of hurdles to overcome, not least of which is the straight cost of doing business. Where it might be simple for some organizations in the US and Europe to wave off a couple thousand dollars worth of licensing fees, the same is not true in Africa. The margins are lower, so every cent counts.

In a region where cost is so important, it’s amazing then that the most lucrative deals go to the Western organizations that have high costs for ownership and maintenance. These outside organizations use backdoor methods to gain contracts where in-country options are available, usually with less expense and with greater local support.

The bigger problem is the knowledge costs, or lack thereof, when closed source organizations muscle into the most lucrative fields. What the country ends up doing is stifling its own programming community. Without money trickling back into that community, its growth is stunted. Instead of young developers learning the fundamentals of coding in open code, they end up going to work in an office that runs proprietary systems.

The scenes are far from set.

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