Although Africa still only makes up a small percentage of worldwide revenue, it is growing faster than most other regions, says Microsoft South Africa MD Gordon Frazer.
Although the African continent poses numerous challenges for a company that makes its revenue from the technologically-advanced world of computers, says Frazer, South Africa is by far the largest market on the continent and the company is dedicated to realising the enormous growth potential here.
“Although other emerging markets are also growing quickly, parts of Africa are growing in excess of 30%. While this is off a small base in comparison with US and western European markets, the African picture looks good”.
In terms of new products being launched, every effort is made to ensure that anything available overseas is also available in South Africa at the same time. Most products are launched simultaneously across the globe, unless there is a local language version, which causes some lag time.
“When it comes to worldwide strategies, the company is well co-ordinated. But Microsoft South Africa is left to figure out the local market challenges. It is up to us to understand the market conditions, which partners to engage and how best to market products. There is quite a lot of autonomy in that regard. But the product development side is driven out of the US.”
An example would be with the .Net framework where Microsoft has partnered with a large financial company in order to get feedback on the server for the developers. This is because different versions are suitable for local conditions.
“But at the end of the day we are a wholly-owned subsidiary and have to manage ourselves according to the parent company’s principles and guidelines. Microsoft has certain profit and revenue targets that we in
South Africa have to work towards”.
From a global perspective, the South Africa operation is doing well, especially in the areas of growth and profitability. Frazer says Microsoft SA is delivering great results.
“If a general combination of areas is looked at, South Africa is in the top echelons of the business”.
Microsoft has invested in Africa substantially. Even where there is no office as such, Microsoft has representation. Frazer says that while there is a certain amount of saturation in Western markets, Microsoft sees Africa as a continent with a lot of people and potential, “despite a number of challenges”.
The debate surrounding the .Net framework in South Africa poses interesting questions for Microsoft. While some argue that the system will revolutionise business, others are asking how Microsoft will make money when it seems likely that the firm will release the .Net run time onto other operating systems.
XML web services tools, like Microsoft’s Visual Studio .Net, has been cited as the answer to the need to make corporate data available through portals and system-to-system connections. In other words, firms can and will use web services technology to replace manual, forms-based business communications with automated, XML-based connections.
Frazer says that Microsoft developed .Net as it had come to a point where if the company had not taken action it would have been used against it.
“It essentially came to a point where developers realised that XML services were the inevitable way forward.”
Contrary to what many think, Frazer says it is not an entirely Microsoft dominant environment, particularly in terms of the Internet. By moving into this environment what Microsoft has done is to make sure that its applications are able to run on any platform.
For a customer that has adopted XML web services, the ability to choose the platform is very broad. They are not tied to Windows and Frazer says that the intention with .Net is to make the best XML web server for the market and build the next generation Internet.
“Whether our platform is in use is not the ultimate question. The old way of doing it was if you wanted to write a Windows application you had to have a Windows server. Now if you want to write a .Net application you might need some aspects of Microsoft in the equation but you can work on other platforms. And that means we can enter the game in areas we were lagging in.
It really enables application integration and that is something we think we can do better than anyone else”.
Frazer said that the productivity gains from .Net will obviously vary, but he has no doubt that in terms of building new business solutions it will deliver faster time to market.
That this may hold true for small business is also something Frazer is excited about. However, there is the problem that those involved in small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs) have often already sunk costs into their software and are maintaining a wait and see attitude regarding .Net.
“What an SSME would have to ask is, is the benefit of being able to trade at the click of a button worth money to it. And if it is, how much? The days of people buying technology for technology’s sake are gone. Which is probably a good thing. But industry and business need to be aware of that. I think the barrier to adoption is the change in the paradigm in how people work”.
Frazer begs to differ from the view that web services will not become pervasive until 2005. He says that while some aspects may take two to three years there are certain aspects that have already become pervasive. He expects .Net to be used more frequently in the next 12 months and says it will most likely be mainstream by 2004.
While .Net is at present only available on Windows, the next generation of products Microsoft will release are being designed on the assumption that the .Net framework is pervasive. The upcoming release of Windows .Net Server 2003 is a timely example.
“We are working to see how we can make .Net work in a non-Microsoft environment to make sure it is not limited purely to the Microsoft realm. Over time it will become available on other operating systems, but I can’t really say any more than that. There are likely to be some announcements in the near future”. – I-Net Bridge