Where Africa and Technology Collide!

Microsoft vs the Open Source Community in Africa

Microsoft vs the open source community in Africa

Last week the BBC interviewed Dr. Diarra, the chairman of Microsoft in Africa. One of his quotes was 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,”

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.

Netzpolitik writes an interesting piece, pointing to a recent WSJ article and talking about how Microsoft 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.

“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.”

Monetary and Knowledge Costs

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.

Ushahidi and Vine

The last year has taught me a great deal about working in the open source space. Not just in developing a tool using these principles, but in helping create a non-profit technology organization focused on open these same fundamentals. That is, we believe that the best use and furtherance of our technology, and our organizations goals, is done with and by the greater community that grows around it. We serve as a focal point from which this community gains energy and to act as a group which is dedicated to the core framework of the tool itself.

Do all situations need and/or require open software? No. In some cases closed-source options are just plain better, which is why I have no problem buying great apps for my PC, Mac or iPhone that make my life easier. I don’t believe that all technology has to be open, though I do think that by keeping it completely closed most companies will be bypassed by their open counterparts in the long run. Good examples of this are the Firefox browser and WordPress blogging platform – possibly Android.

A couple of weeks ago Microsoft announced their new Vine product. It has a lot in common with Ushahidi, including sending and receiving of alerts via SMS and email. To be honest, we have no ownership of this idea, but what we do have is a question as to why Microsoft believes and works to create crisis and emergency systems in a closed way.

Some thoughts from other bloggers on this same issue:

“Crisis reporting is something that wants to be free. It needs to be free, community owned, a service that just exists.”

Jon Gosier

“There is nothing in Vine that you cannot already do with a combination of Ushahidi’s proximity alerts and the path-breaking SMS based forms updates from FrontlineSMS. Having met with the best and brightest of Microsoft Research, key members of the team behind Vine and the team behind the new version of Sharepoint and Groove, Microsoft have nothing that comes close to the capabilities of FrontlineSMS today with regards to forms based data transfers over SMS in austere conditions, which is precisely what is needed for decision support mechanisms and alerting post-crises.”

Sanjana Hattotuwa

“The ownership of a crisis reporting system by one company seems unattractive from a consumer as well as a security perspective. It is not unlikely that this will become yet another failed attempt to override instead of collaborate with existing local solutions.”


Unless Microsoft is creating something truly revolutionary, which I don’t see that it is in Vine, then I would rather see them put their development muscle behind something that actually is. It doesn’t even have to be Ushahidi. Finally, if they really are about creating emergency and disaster software for use by normal people, then I would encourage them to not charge for it and to make it as open as possible for others to work with it, including Ushahidi.

[Sidenote: Interestingly enough, the first pre-beta smartphone app that was finished for Ushahidi was the Windows Mobile version. We all chuckled, and then gave a quick dig to the ribs of the devs doing the Android and J2ME apps, to get them going. To us, it didn’t matter that it was the service created for our friendly closed-source giant finished first. In the realm that we find ourselves in, crowdsourcing crisis information, it doesn’t matter what device you use – it just needs to work.]

(Blue Monster image by Hugh MacLeod)


  1. I would bet money that Microsoft would give away whatever is needed to get a big, bloated foot in the door of any African country’s network and educational infrastructure. That’s pretty much par for the course in how they do business and the fact that they have pretty much nowhere to go but down at this point, they’ll be pursuing new markets quite agressively.
    Beyond cost, Open Source has the tremendous advantage of having a community around any project. It’s just unfortunate that Microsoft has massive marketing muscle, which will be something hard to content with for those of us working in the African technology space. One can only hope that a better understanding of community and having a solution better fit to the environment than whatever a Microsoft focus group churns out will ultimately win. They’ll have no interest in sharing or playing nice as long as Ballmer is at the helm.

  2. Miguel,

    You’ve just described how they operate in Africa and other markets. They give away software to (and in some cases even pay) African policy makers to integrate their systems. Foolishly, most African leaders fall for it, not understanding the implications and often not caring that it crushes the local markets chances of ever offering solutions or competing in anyway. It’s a duality, Microsoft has questionable practices in many ways, but the part that infuriates me is the part of the people who keep selling out their countries and peoples futures. The only way to combat this is if local developers can rely on their policy makers, CEOs, Deans etc. to at least give them a fighting chance.

  3. Great article which articulates the issues well. Some research shows that there are 15,000 MSCEs in Kenya alone – 50% of whom are unemployed. Being a FOSS advocate and sysadmin/coding trainer myself I am all too aware how cost and closed systems represent an entry barrier to many promising young Africans – a sort of conceptual barrier is created by a lack of access to the system internals … When these young people are introduced to Linux they just blossom and bloom.
    I can second your comment about the outflow of budget to Euro-American companies – an endemic dependency and serious obstacle to the creation of local software economies. It does not help that some international development agencies are funding and implementing FOSS certification programmes which, once again, create dependencies and cash flow to bodies outside Africa – whilst these same agencies actively negate efforts to create by-Africans-for-Africans FOSS certifications. Don’t get me wrong: it is not that we Africans want nothing to do everything ourselves or have nothing to do with the outside world. No! We can only benefit from international collaboration but such efforts should have benefits that flow both ways.
    Important topic and well made points.

  4. As soneone who swims in both waters I personally refuse to side with either of the extermists. I think there is plenty of room for OpenSource and closed source software to get along. The FUD peddled by both sides at times leaves me wondering whether to be amused or annoyed.

    For instance it is perfectly possible to build software, closed or otherwise using completely free tools from Microsoft — development tools, database engine, etc. There is in fact a significant presence of free and open source tools and applications developed around Microsoft platforms.

    And on the other side there is absolutely no need to re-invent the wheel if something that scratches an itch is already there. Moreso if the the invented wheel is absolutely the same as the existing wheel. I find it a waste of resources for Microsoft to re-invent already existing tools and technologies.

    But anyway, this is stuff for a proper blog post. My point is I don’t see why you have to wholly be in one camp or the other.

    Question @Ken Banks — if FrontLineSMS in fact OpenSource software? I’ve not seen any mention of that on the site itself.

  5. blog post comment:

    ‘margins are lower, so every cent counts’. I don’t think it’s a margins issue at all. being close to insiders with quite a few retail stores, it’s definitely not margins. Their’s are quite small. I think it’s an issue of scale. When Wal-mart opperates 1500 stores in the US, even at a small margin, that adds up to a lot of money. But the African opening up a single roadside shop isn’t dealing with margins, he’s dealing with scale.

    This leads to me to the first though on this whole subject. Just like DVDs and CDs carry different prices all over the world (the reason for region coding) why can’t Microsoft do the same with software. Africa seems to be completely forgotten in this realm. I don’t condone piracy, but why do you think it’s so rampant in S & E Asia and the middle-east (and more countries and regions I’m unfamiliar with) not to mention Africa. The DVDs actually cost more in Kenya than in the US. Pretty sure the GDP is significantly higher in the US.

    I understand the software is shared online historically to a MUCH greater extent than media, but we got to find a middle ground here. As of right now, few people in Africa (even potential software writers) havn’t the access to download or upload and share software. It’s a closed loop (that’s beginning to open).

    Erik, you have any insight on why Microsoft wouldn’t just sell developer software for next to free or just give it away to encourage development on their platform?

    Bummer to hear about Vine. I definately agree that this particular space ‘wants’ to be free by it’s very nature. It’s likely Microsoft had this idea on a shelf 10 yrs ago and finally started building it out 6yrs ago slowly, now realizing the space is filling up they pushed it past alpha/beta to get into the space before you took to much of the pie. Maybe they’ll buy out Ushahidi and you can have some serious cash to make the next big thing. 🙂

    PS. I haven’t met a whole lot of African developers yet, but the most active ones I’ve met so far are all hardcore Unix/Linux guys. As for my preferred platform, of course the COMPLETELY closed Apple 🙂 I’m a media guy, what can I say.

  6. Nice post, Erik. Nicely balanced in my view. As others have said – along with your good self – there is room for proprietary and open source. Comparing one against the other without much thought reminds me of the ‘battle’ between OLPC and the mobile. In that battle it’s unlikely there will be one “winner” – there is a need for both – and I feel the same with Microsoft and open source.

    As for Vine, you know my views. 🙂


  7. Another important aspect of this discussion is localization. In this area there could and arguably should be some cooperation between Microsoft and the open source community on basic resources like terminologies and dictionaries for less-resourced languages – what I’ve dubbed (for lack of a better term) a “historic compromise” in favor of African language computing.

    Microsoft, and indeed Dr. Diarra, have made a lot of publicity about their interest in localizing software in African languages. Unfortunately the roll outs have tended to lag a bit. Also the approach of “Language Interface Packs” (LIP) is limited to translation of about 80% of “the most commonly used” terms. And the lack of success of what should be the easiest win – the Swahili version of Windows and Office – is probably due to poor marketing strategy (though I haven’t seen any good analysis of this). In the end you have a fair amount of resources doing (so far) relatively little for ICT in African languages, but what they have accomplished is protected by copyright and not accessible to other initiatives.

    The open source community, on the other hand, is attempting much more in localization – with the African Network for Localisation (ANLoc) being a key initiative on the continent. Of course the results in this area reflect the aggregate of many efforts, whether networked or isolated. Problems include lack of follow-up (for instance the original localizations of OpenOffice and Firefox in Swahili are out of date already, though new efforts are finally underway to update) and follow-through (open source also needs better marketing – almost no connection with ICT4D projects, for example), as well as the inevitable problems with funding.

    What strikes me however is the absurdity of parallel or even competing efforts for languages with relatively few resources – in particular terminologies and dictionaries. This has led me to suggest a “historic compromise” whereby all actors in the field of localized software for Africa would agree to cooperate and share (openly) terminologies and dictionaries for African languages. I believe this would be a benefit for everyone, whether firms seeking profit or open source initiatives seeking wider access. (My perspective harmonizes somewhat with that expressed by “M” above.)

    If there is going to be an increase in access to and options in ICT via localization for Africans, it seems necessary to think outside the usual competitive framework and find ways to collaborate on computing resources for developing software in African languages. Probably the biggest move in such a “historic compromise” would have to be made by Microsoft, but there is arguably a big payoff too in terms of good will and wider communities in Africa familiar with ICT in diverse interfaces (within which there will be more people inclined to buy their products). For open source the benefits are clear – struggling always with funding and human resource issues, not having to build parallel corpora and language resources would be a boon. But the biggest winners of course, would be Africans…

  8. @M – Re: your comment on FrontlineSMS. Yeah, the code is open source, available via Sourceforge, and a few developers are already working with it. We concentrated our early efforts on building the user community, which is now running nicely. We expect to create a new “Developer” section on the o/ site and officially announce everything in a few weeks. Watch this – or that? – space.

  9. I think as long as open source does not have huge $ in the bank, Open source will suffer. MS is able to ‘BUY’ customers or Key decision makers with trips overseas, lunches etc. I see this time & time and again in the corp world. The decision makers choose propriety software due to the ‘perks’ they get. Remember this is not bribery, its things like free lunches, international trips to conferences sponsored by the company etc. Open Source cant compete with that, and the decision makers do not realise that those trips etc are inflating the costs of the software.

    Another example, The government in SA has recently implemented an Open Source strategy. All govt. departments need to start using Open Source technology and also includes the ODF(Open document format) as the standard document format. The strategy was approved by government.


    Despite this strategy being approved an enacted, government departs continue to roll out projects based propriety software. e.g The laptop project for teachers all have MS windows installed……. See the link below for more details

  10. Is it taboo to say monopoly or corruption? I would find it hard to believe if the big guns are actually putting money under the table, (not that the leadership isn’t asking for it) but monopoly? I could see that. Giving away a lot to get business, that’s outselling the competition. I’m a HUGE free market person, but some things are just straight up amoral. Even though it’s not money, giving leadership a few free laptops for life for his business… just the same.

    Ismail- Open Source doesn’t need cash to happen, but if it’s going to play the game, it has to literally buy it’s business. And that’s bad business.

  11. @Don, I couldn’t agree more with you on the issue of localization. Very important and heavily overlooked by most tech companies as they’re based in the de facto monolingual US. Ironic given that a great swath of their programmers are often able to speak two if not three languages.
    We’re trying to change that on our project, although the message is hard to purvey to an audience that doesn’t “get it” in how important the native African languages are to communication. You know it well, but it needs to be emphasized that not everyone on the continent speaks English or French! Google realizes this and has made pretty good efforts in having various languages here and there, like their Congo site being available in English, French, Kiswahili, and Lingala with French as the default. I suspect that this may be something that really trips Microsoft up as I’ve never been terribly thrilled at their localization efforts. It always seems to me that they felt they had to do it to get a market share as opposed to wanting to do it to make their software more universally accessible and be genuinely better.

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  13. Zulsafi, i agree totally. Open souce can beat out closed Source any day. And YES buying the business is totally wrong and Ethically incorrect.

    I once worked with sharepoint, its by far the worst software i have ever worked with. No one ever uses half of the features due to complexity etc. I tried to evangalize drupal or some open source CMS but the company would never hear of it.

    As i said above, key decision makers often do not go with Open Source not because its not up to scratch, simply put with open source they do not get any benefits(Personal). If drupal is implemented for intranet, will the person that made the decision get a free trip to a drupal con? I highly doubt that.

    However, i know many MANY people that have been flown around the world with $’s from MS, SUN, HP, Symantec (Insert any other large vendor here)

    It simply boils down to that…. and as long as these freebies are handed out… people in decision making positions will continue to make these decisions!

  14. Hello All.. finally i found one of african blog! hhihihi.. nice to meet you all.. 🙂

  15. It’s pretty lame to bring this OSS vs. Microsoft debate into Africa. Can Africans decide for themselves, for once? If I sell coffee to a company in Seattle, why should I not buy a copy of Microsoft Windows made in Seattle? If I deem the product inferior or unsuitable for my needs, why shouldn’t I sell coffee to the Germans and buy a support license of SuSE Linux?

  16. @james roberts – on the personal level you’re right. What we’re discussing here goes beyond that though, it’s about the way large government departments buy the lucrative contracts, this in turn wags the tail of local development and the focus of programmers in-country.

    Oh, also, I’m not bringing the debate to Africa, it’s already there.

  17. i’m not really sure whether Microsoft vs open source debate should be the dominant debate – i think for those who love open source the debate should be how to increase the number of open source developers — how can we increase the number of opensource developers and how can we demonstrate to those interested that its in their personal interest to adopt the open source development model.

    Now there are a coupe of subtleties about Africa, that’s are different from the US or Europe. In Africa, unfortunately most people in particular careers not because they have love for it but more so because that is where the money is [the same can be said about the US .. but because in the US there is a surplus of skills it sort of nullifies this – hence you find English majors or music major who are software developers etc] end up in careers mainly out of the financial security it offers and those are the people [not all] who end up in running the IT organization in business and government and those are the people you will have to deal with.

    So to answers or deal with the question of Microsoft vs open source question you first have to deal with the motivations – we all know or think we know Microsoft’s motivations but we seem not have taken time to find out or have not adequately addressed the motivations of the developers on the ground.

    Another part of the equation is arguably is the culture of open source itself and attitude to knowledge and sharing. In Africa and i stand to be corrected Knowledge and Information are closely held – like if you search the web for information about anything in Africa you quickly discover that most of that information has not been put there by Africans rather its mainly foreigners and mostly likely you getting half the story– now that is not to say there is no information or knowledge it just means that information is closely held by few individuals and if its important information its likely held by fewer individuals who derive enourmous power from having that information.

    I think i lost myself here and sorry for blogging on your blog but if i say anything meaningful its that you have to understand the motivations of the parties involved

  18. To M
    Yes there is a lot of free development tools from MS, but they are not really made for deployment of professional software. You can do it, but some important things are missing. This is personal experience speaking, I just shelled out for Visual Studio Standard after trying to get by with Express. There is a further problem through. The system itself costs money. Now as a freelancer in Europe, I can buy Vista, but it hurts my bank account never the less. Since I develop, naturally I cannot use the basic home edition. Since I have only limited knowledge of Africa, I cannot really imagine how much it may hurt someone in Africa a) to get a machine which can run Vista (yes that cost hurts moderately too) b) get Vista itself. With open source there are systems that do not need top of the line hardware and there is no cost to get an OS.
    I still work with OpenOffice because MS Office (professional) is a waste of money. And I am in an affluent part of Europe.

    On the other hand I understand government wanting to use MS. Because people do not complain about MS Office as much, as they do about open source software. If something doesn’t work in MS, people think they themselves are stupid and get a new course scheduled. If Open Office acts funny (and it does too) its the softwares fault and they are no certificates and courses to take. Perception plays a big part in the decision. And MS is good in cooing people to calm them down, this works the world over.
    By the way I use the tools I need to get things done. I am not firm on one side or the other. I can understand IT-departments wanting to shove responsibility about the software firmly in MS court. But I don’t think this works out long term. I use open source to save money and because it doesn’t irk me half as much, if I know that actually, if there is a problem I could fix it myself. And I like the fast update cycles, always something new. As a student I used Linux exclusively, MS wanted me to jump through too many hoops to get the student software, Linux was just complicated and I learned a lot. It is really easy now, they have come a long way. And they will get better. MS just didn’t get this much better in this time, because that is not their main goal.

  19. Microsoft’s strategy in developing countries can be summed up as follows:

    Sell a man a fish, and you have sold one fish.
    Teach a man to fish, and you get to sell him expensive, proprietary bait and tackle for the rest of his life.

    Once you buy — or get given, or pirate — Microsoft software, you are pretty much locked into using Microsoft software forever afterward, because as far as Microsoft are concerned, “interoperability” means “helping our competitors poach our customers”.

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