CAIRO: One striking aspect of the Cairo ICT conference earlier this year was the multitude of government departments present as exhibitors. A range of e-government projects, such as smart cards for subsidies and portals for various government services, are underway.
Another field in which IT companies, particularly multinationals, feature prominently is education. The volume of press releases about educational initiatives emanating from some multinational software and hardware companies is astounding. The use of IT in education is an equally high priority for policymakers, with the government working with technology companies to adapt university curricula and to incorporate computers into the classroom for primary and secondary education.
But one cannot help but wonder why IT companies are heavily involved in education projects and how such initiatives tie into their core activities of selling hardware and software.
We take a holistic approach, explains Rob Crooke, vice president and general manager of business client group at Intel, adding that internet connectivity, education and product sales are interrelated and are all part of his company s strategy.
For this reason, Intel and other IT companies work with local universities to integrate technology used in their products into course curricula. This encourages the popularization of their favored technologies.
The advantage of proliferate internet connectivity to IT companies is clear. Software companies such as Microsoft gain by the sale of Internet-related software and services and the popularity of the Internet encourages the use of computers and network devices provided by hardware companies like Intel.
The involvement of IT companies in education is also multifaceted and getting youth familiar with their products is only one aspect.
The other part is using IT in e-learning, because what happens is that you start changing the student from a passive recipient of curriculum to become an active pursuer of knowledge, says Ali Faramawy, Microsoft s vice president for the Middle East and Africa region.
Faramawy adds that the use of computers by students can encourage collaboration on research and interaction with specialists in distant locations. There are also a number of education-related software services in addition to distance education.
Most of the services that look at, for example, essays and detecting plagiarism are worldwide pieces of software that you can subscribe to … like a web service, says Faramawy.
In terms of e-government, Faramawy explains that technology goes hand-in-hand with improving the processes involved in government services.
The process is not going to be improved with technology, says Faramawy. You ve improved the process, but [without technology] where s the accuracy of data? Where s the consistency of data? Where s the speed factor?
Computers also assist in streamlined interaction between government departments. Today if you want to open a restaurant, how many government entities do you have to deal with? asks Faramawy. You re going to deal with Ministry of Health. You re going to deal with the Ministry of Tourism. You re going to deal with security officials. You re going to deal with your local governorate … No matter how much you clean up the process, you re going to need information technology to make it happen in real-time and in the proper way.
As with the mobile phone market, the region and other emerging markets are attractive to multinational IT companies because of the potential for high penetration.
The Middle East and Africa is one of the fastest-growing IT markets in the world, says Faramawy. In terms of hardware shipments, it is growing between 20 percent and 35 percent depending on the country.
But this potential is threatened by the lack of enforcement of intellectual property rights. Faramawy anticipates illegal software use to diminish as the value of software become more evident to businesses.
The more you use information technology in effective, valuable ways, the more people will forget about the cost and just think more about the outcome, says Faramawy.
Faramawy also advocates internal measures to ensure compliance with software licenses. In some parts of the world, it’s actually part of the formal audit process, he explains. So your auditors will actually say if your software assets are properly purchased or not.
Nevertheless, software companies including Microsoft lobby strongly for increased enforcement of the copyrights and patents through the Washington-based Business Software Alliance, whose president visited Egypt earlier this year.
Education, Internet connectivity, hardware sales, software services and patent and copyright regulations are therefore all intermingled with the pursuit of the regional IT market by multinationals, and this accounts for the strong ties between government authorities and multinational IT companies in education, e-government, wireless technology and other areas.