the view from cairo

Speedy Bill

The world's richest man was recently in Cairo. Find out all about his trip...

by Tarek Atia

It may be because Bill Gates is so omnipresent in our lives -- does "Resuming Windows" sound familiar? -- that his actual physical presence is, for lack of a better term, littler than life. The money -- all $40 billion or so -- could never really glamorise the nerd who made it; with his pudding-basin haircut and bland clothes and glasses he still plays the part, albeit with a lot of self-confidence.

Wherever he goes the reception belies his techno-geek appearance. He gets mobbed like a movie star. Which is, of course, what happened in Cairo recently. At one of the cocktail receptions he attended older, otherwise distinguished women were all a-flutter wanting to take their pictures with him.

The world's richest man was in town for 24 hours to speak at several major Microsoft events. In that brief span he met President Hosni Mubarak and networked with thousands of top officials and business leaders. He did not visit the Pyramids or other major sights -- he was saving those for a future visit, with his wife Melinda.

He did, however, deliver a keynote address to a conference that brought together 3,800 of the region's top software developers. Karim Ramadan, Microsoft Egypt's general manager, said the sheer number of events that had been programmed for Gates during his brief Cairo jaunt stunned the company's Chief Software Architect. But for "Bill", speaking to developers is "what he likes most".

Gates told them that software development would be the key dynamic of the next decade as the industry heads for "seamless computing", with a myriad of devices connected via the right software.

He said Microsoft was spending its $6.8 billion research and development budget entirely on software; some of that was going towards developing the kinds of operating systems that would revolutionise the way we use computers and other devices. Gates described a world of total PC and phone collaboration, where you could not only see the person you are talking to or working with, but have access to their computer screen as well. He outlined other tools that will eliminate distance and boost communication, all of which, he argued, can help places like Egypt participate more fruitfully in the global economy.

"Countries and businesses that seize these opportunities will be at the front. The Middle East will be a particular beneficiary of stronger global networks and increased connectivity." Ever the salesman, Gates' ultimate pitch was "we are here to help you achieve your vision."

That idea was being played out as a mutually beneficial proposition. For Gates the visit was a massive marketing opportunity that will probably generate much business and expand Microsoft's global reach. For Egypt it was a chance to be touched by glory. "Bill Gates chose Egypt, and only Egypt, of all the Middle Eastern countries, for his first visit to the region," was the endlessly repeated mantra.

"A lot of people ask what is he going to do for us? But just by coming," Telecom Egypt President Akil Beshir said, "he will have made an impact. He has opened up a strong communications channel with Egypt." Beshir was one of those Bill had asked to meet. As head of Egypt's largest telecom operation there was a lot of potential business to talk about.

Gates also had a private chat with IT Minister Ahmed Nazeef about Egypt's potential for taking on larger amounts of outsourced IT work from abroad. Speaking to the Middle East Developers conference before Bill came on, Nazeef said Egyptian developers had "self confidence and ambition", but were lacking in the ability to market their work. Much to the audience's surprise, rather than stand behind the podium, Nazeef used a wireless microphone, roving around the stage as he said the minimum salary for a developer in the US is $60,000 a year. "How much do you work for?"

Basically, the minister seemed to be saying two things: Egypt can sell its services cheaply and Egyptian developers stand to make good money doing so.

Asked during a Business Leaders Forum roundtable to compare Arab countries' chances at replicating India's success with outsourcing, Gates said that "with a good education infrastructure there's no reason why other countries can't get the same opportunities." Which is hardly reassuring for Egypt given current rates of illiteracy.

It's best to be realistic, said Medhat Khalil, chairman of Raya Holding, one of Egypt's largest IT firms. "We cannot compete with India. They have 1.2 billion people, with 300 million who know English. We don't have those numbers. However, India exports $10 billion or more in IT services and products annually. If we do $500 million in business we would be doing a great service to the national economy."

Egypt is one of many places hoping that Bill will help propel them into the global club. The day before coming to Cairo Gates was asked by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf for Microsoft's help in developing Pakistan's IT economy.

It was clear in the way he worked the room after one of the Cairo forums that Gates enjoys this dynamic. Although he's expanding his global empire, it probably stopped being about money long ago. Controlling how fast the world hurtles into the future is what Bill is all about.

 

PREVIOUS VIEW FROM CAIRO

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