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French Version

Microsoft's MENA chief finds region full of potential

Berkin singles out piracy as major

Turkish-born Emre Berkin is a typical business executive with a very busy schedule. Berkin has just concluded a two-hour meeting with representatives of Beirut-based Professional Computer Associates (PCA). An hour later, Berkin visited the residence of assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri to pay his condolences to his family.

But the work for this executive is not over. Berkin had to travel the next day to his regional office in Istanbul, Turkey. This endless traveling and negotiations did not break the spirit of the chairman of Microsoft for the Middle East and Africa which oversees operations in 79 countries.

Berkin recalls his early days in computing. "The famous American pop artist Andy Warhol said that everybody gets 15 minutes of fame. I got my 15 minutes of fame when I was a college student in Turkey," Berkin said.

Berkin assisted some of the students at the college to process their doctorate thesis through giant computers.

"Students used to come to me with thousands of punched cards which contained their research. The process was a bit complex because you had to feed these cards into the big computers in order to read them."

Berkin developed a simple system to speed up the loading of the punch cards.

"I drew a line diagonally on the cards with a marker pen. This made processing of the cards much easier and since then students used to come to me not only to feed the cards but to sign autographs on their thesis, such as good luck honey," Berkin said.

After graduating from the United States with a master's degree in computer science, Berkin joined the Digital Equipment Corporations for six years.

Berkin persuaded his company to open an office in Turkey where he was approached by Microsoft in 1993, four years after his arrival.

One of the first challenges Berkin faced in his new job was to educate Turks about the benefits of personal computers and the software programs that come with it.

"We had to start with fundamentals in nonmature emerging markets like Turkey. Our first marketing campaign was to equate pens and pencils with Microsoft [program] Word, and calculators with [Microsoft program] Excel."

Microsoft had 100 percent of the Turkish market when Berkin joined the company.

"But out of this 100 percent, 98 percent of Microsoft software was pirated products. This means that we only had two percent of the market share."

Determined to change this picture, Berkin and his colleagues in Microsoft started a massive campaign to educate the Turks about the disadvantages of software piracy.

"People received prior warnings before Microsoft took legal actions against computer piracy," he said.

After several years of piracy, the level of intellectual property violations fell from 98 percent to almost 52 percent in 2004.

Berkin is also not discouraged by the fact that the entire MENA market represents only 3 percent of Microsoft business worldwide.

Backing his argument with figures, Berkin stresses that MENA markets have a lot of potential to be tapped into by his company.

"Per-capita income between these 79 countries varies a lot. We have countries with $100 per capita income a year compared to $30,000 in other states."

Berkin refutes the notion that the economy is one of the factors which prompts people to buy pirated software.

"Software and music piracy is like stealing a bicycle. Once people understand this concept they will stop practicing this habit," he said.

Citing an example, Berkin said that "Jordan's gross domestic product and per capita income is lower than Lebanon, and yet the software piracy in Lebanon is higher than in Jordan."

Lebanon ranks among the top 10 countries in the world with a high ratio of computer piracy, although the government and computer associates have succeeded in reducing the number of violations in the past few years.

However, Berkin still retains confidence in the Lebanese market.

"The Lebanese people are very educated and talented," he said

After opening a regional office in Beirut less than a decade ago, Microsoft succeeded in leaving its mark on the country.

The company signed several IT agreements with private and public sectors, and launched numerous computer educational programs.

"We are not a company that opens a factory in every country. What we mainly do is transfer our IT knowledge to the people of the region."

Berkin didn't lose his faith in Lebanon following the assassination of Hariri.

"I appreciate and admire the spirit in this country. Lebanon may have setbacks every now and then, but I bet everything I have that the country will recover from these events," Berkin said.

Asked about Microsoft's total investment in the region, Berkin responded diplomatically: "Put a price tag on knowledge then you will have an answer."

Berkin added that Microsoft recognizes the importance of the Middle East market. "Microsoft launches an Arabic version for any major software the company releases, on the same day," he said.

Berkin added that Lebanon has the potential to become one of the leading IT centers in the region.

"One of the biggest advantages Lebanon has is the fact that the Lebanese population is multilingual. But the Lebanese government needs to take more initiatives to attract IT investments, as in the case of Egypt and Jordan," he said.

Beirut,03 21 2005
Osama Habib
The Daily Star
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