The common knowledge that Microsoft is “a PC running windows” being particularly viewed in developing countries is grossly erroneous and completely out of place. However, the perception of Microsoft varies from country to country in terms of what it does. “We are the only real player that has very strong desktop presence and a very strong server presence,” concurs Peter Moore, Managing Director, Public Sector, Microsoft’s Asia-Pacific Region, in an interview with Ravi Gupta from egov.
How do you give a summary of the present e-Government/e-Governance in Asia-Pacific vis-à-vis US or Europe?
Across Asia-Pacific, there is diversity – from developed countries in Australia, New Zealand and some of the emerging countries like Indonesia, India and to a certain extent Vietnam. I think that the term e-Governance is probably a term emerging from India since here is a belief that governance and e-Governments are corelated, and I am supportive of such an idea.
I have had many meetings and made many presentations on e-Governance in India, and I think, with a focus on ensuring availability of government services, one can overcome many of the governance issues in the country such as access to the government services by any citizen of India, transparency to ensure that services are available. So the focus is there.
In the US and the UK, for example, government services are made available online. But the US is a very large country,it’s very complex for many states. Naturally, I can draw equivalence to the challenges in US with India. In India, there are 33 states with every state having a certain degree of autonomy. The central government wants to specify things to be done in a certain way but money should be given to the states and just see them perform in whatever way they can. So there is really a struggle going on between the central government and the states. On the other hand, when we look at a country like Australia, it is advanced in terms of the government’s use of IT to make things easy for the citizens. We cannot do that without great computerization and great technology. We cannot deliver citizen services without technology.
In this scenario of Asia-Pacific, general public mainly see Microsoft as someone that provides software, but when one talks about e-Government, it is mainly about the backend. These two roles are entirely different. So how old is the e-Government initiative of the Microsoft? And, what is this initiative?
Again the perception of Microsoft varies from country to country, in terms of what it does. I think that in a country like Australia, many people would know that some of the largest government systems are built on Microsoft technologies such as in the Australian tax office, immigration, and a whole lot of other backend systems. When I look at developing countries, the interesting thing is that the public’s first view of Microsoft is what you said, “a PC running windows”. This generalisation that Microsoft is a desktop company is from people who only use a desktop and if you ask someone who is and we ask about Database Systems, about Servers Software, and all sorts of things. However, the result that we get back indicate that people actually know that Microsoft Server Software is a very serious player. We are the only real player that has very strong desktop presence and a very strong server presence.
Is there any initiative, which you would like to highlight in the application development/domain perspective like integration in customs, for example where your company has played a key role in the Asia-Pacific?
When we talk about backend systems – database, messaging system, applications, operating system – as you correctly pointed out, the big enterprise applications system that people normally think about are things like SAP are not Microsoft. But SAP runs on a platform and we have got very large customers that runs on SAP.
We have got a lot of customers that have moved from Oracle and Linux systems to Windows Server and SQL Server, running SAP because the overall cost is lower.And the scalability of their latform, which is Windows, Database, Messaging and so on, the scalability is now proving suitable for very very large customers. Most things are customs developed, so when a government wants to put a tax system in place or immigration system in place, particularly custom developed applications, those applications are very complex and need a lot of money to produce. That’s where again we have an advantage because our development tools are quite easy to use and extremely powerful and they allow for very rapid development. Our development platform, which is called ‘dot net’, allows developers to use any development language that they would like to use. And it provides an application environment that is very flexible, it can run in a laptop, or parts of it can run in a Windows Serverbased platform. So it is very flexible from that point of view. The unusual things that we learnt as the desktop software company is that people have got all different modes, all different ways of accessing information. Some people use desktop computer, some people use laptop, some people use a phone, some people use different sorts of devices and we think we have got a good environment for that. So when you say ‘our pedigree to provision backend services’, I think we have a good pedigree because of operating system- database, messaging system, collaboration environment that we have, and the portal technologies.
Is your company taking any initiative to share the best practices?
Yes. There is couple of different things that we are doing. We are running a series of government workshops, where we bring out our people and talk about this connected government framework. We talk to them about government interoperability. We also have dedicated resources in all the countries where we have ‘National Technology Officers’, and their role is to ensure that the government is aware of the implications of any actions that they might take on things like standards. I think that it’s important that people are educated about any policies that would impact adoption of any technology.
We have people who get involved in policy debates and discussions and those sorts of things. We have these workshops with the Government, plus we train our partners on these frameworks. So we would work with the likes of NIC in India and help them to understand how all these components come together.
How do you see the growth of your public sector business in this specific region compared to US?
Everything about public sector is very different from one country to another. But in general, it is one of the fastest growing areas of our business. I think that if I look at the developed countries like Singapore, Australia or New Zealand, there has been a significant amount of money that they are going to spend and we get a reasonable percentage of that. I think if you take some of the developing countries they spend a lot less on IT and more on basic infrastructure, building roads, providing water and electricity to the people. Education is huge cost. So we see different ways in which the governments spend their money across these different countries. As a result of that governments in developing countries are becoming aware that they may be under-invested in IT. That’s one area that really does help many different aspects of the economy.
So it varies from country to country. But I can say that the developing countries are certainly growing more rapidly in terms of the business that we do, than in the developed countries, because developed countries are a decade ahead of the rest of the countries. It will not necessarily take a decade for the developing countries to catch up.
How do you see this debate on the open source stuff, especially from the e-Government angle?
First of all, I would say that there is confusion between open source and open standards. This is important. I like to ensure that people understand the difference upfront. When I have a discussion in different countries with governments, people get confused. They know that they have got different systems and they may think that using open source is a way of ensuring that they have an open system. That is not necessarily the case.
When it comes to e-Government, any synchronized appliance can access the backend system as long as the open standards are being used. You can look at compatibility of different websites, for example, and you have to make sure that things are written to a certain standard. Then you have to make decisions from the backend about whether that system should run one versus the other. There is a belief that open source is better for local economy than using technologies from Microsoft or Oracle or IBM or whatever. And, that is not necessarily the case. Large government organisation, large commercial organisations are always going to have systems from many people and we think that it will continue to be the case. There is a need for Linux in the market, there is a need for Microsoft in the market, and it should never be the case of only one. It should be a case of choice, based on what is best for a particular purpose.
There are a lot of initiatives of your company in ICT education or teacher’s training, community based schools, innovations in the area of the use of ICT in rural areas. What is the picture that your company has?
We have a programme called partners-in learning which talks about the public-private partnership, which we put in place between Microsoft, Governments and the Ministry of Education and the other industry players in a country. In every Microsoft subsidiary in Asia- Pacific, we have dedicated resources focused on these programmes on education. We can never reach students by teachers who are unaware of how to teach in technology. And, so we spend significant amount of money to train the teachers. We also have across the region, significant numbers of independent software vendors who we are supporting to develop great applications for learning. The teachers have a computeraided- environment to control the students from the PC.
There is also the support for access to technology. So we are helping to fund the cost associated with that access through a very generous pricing for our products in developing countries. That is now a contribution to addressing price and access. We are in partnership with large multinational companies. They lend PCs to us. We have a refurbishing programme that allows new softwares to be installed at no cost on to those PCs so that they could then be used in the school labs without adding to any extra cost. All these things come together.
We focus on how many students have been able to be influenced by technology, how many students have seen better outcomes in their learning, as a result of teachers’ knowledge. That sort of tangible aspects we look at in our project on learning. We work with South East Asian Ministry of Education, work with UNESCO, ESCAP, we work with a number of government agencies and NGOs to ensure that it is rolled out in all the countries across the region. The bulk of our spending goes into partners in learning programmes. The project was started 3 years ago. I think we have got great outcomes already in terms of Ministry of Education recognizing there has been significant contribution towards the education of children. But also we have seen the independent software development companies have become profitable after they developed these sorts of applications that I spoke about.