Steve Ballmer: Prepared Remarks, ICT Best Practices Forum

Prepared Remarks for Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer
African Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) Best Practices Forum
April 21, 2008

Editor’s Note, April 21, 2008 –
The following are the prepared remarks for Steve Ballmer’s speech at the 2008 African Information and Communication Technologies Best Practices forum. A verbatim transcript of his remarks will be available approximately 24 hours after the event concludes.

STEVE BALLMER: Thank you, Heads of State: His Excellency Blaise Compaoré, His Excellency Faure Ngnasingbe; Prime Minister and Members of the Cabinet; Speaker of the House Rock Kaboré; President of the Constitutional Court; Heads of Institutions; Minister of Post and Telecommunications; Fellow CEOs; Ambassadors; Mayor Compaoré; Distinguished Guests; Ladies and Gentlemen.

It’s an honor to speak today before such a distinguished group of leaders from governments, international groups, and nongovernmental organizations. I know you’re all here because of your dedication to changing people’s lives for the better. And I admire your commitment, your passion, and your hard work. I believe this is a very important event and I’m confident that the ideas you share during the next three days will have a far-reaching and positive impact on people and businesses across Africa.

In truth, I’m also here because I’m excited by Africa’s incredible potential and its undeniable progress. You have vast natural resources, of course. But more than that, you have an incredible richness in human resources. Nearly a billion people, almost two-thirds of them under the age of 30 and anxious for progress, opportunity, and prosperity. There are also exciting pockets of innovation where Africa is already delivering breakthroughs that are applicable around the world. In Kenya, for example, new digital payment technologies enable people to transfer money between cell phones at very little cost using a simple text message.

At the same time, of course, there are issues related to education, healthcare, basic infrastructure, and support for business and entrepreneurship that need to be addressed.

Like me, you’re here because you believe information and communications technologies can play a pivotal role in addressing many of these issues. So today, I’d like to share my thoughts on some of the technology changes we’ll see in the years ahead, and the impact these changes will have on enabling Africa to build knowledge-based economies and create sustainable growth.

The Next Wave of Technological Change

For the last three decades, information technology has been one of the key catalysts for creating opportunity and prosperity for hundreds of millions of people around the world. From the emergence of the personal computer almost 30 years ago to the explosion of the Internet in the last decade, each new wave of information technology has empowered individuals, driven business growth, and fueled economic expansion.

Today, I believe we’re on the verge of a new wave of technological change that will help speed the pace of technology adoption across Africa. At the heart of this change is five key trends.

  1. During the next decade, we’ll see more and more processing power in smaller and smaller devices.

  2. Storage will expand dramatically on PCs and devices, and in massive datacenters around the world.

  3. Wireless broadband networks will be more and more common, enabling people to tap into all of that processing power and storage from almost anywhere.

  4. Natural user interfaces that take advantage of voice, handwriting, and gestures will become commonplace. As a result, interacting with computers will be more and more like interacting with people.

  5. And finally, screens and projection devices will become cheaper, lighter, and better. Ten years from now, inexpensive high-definition screens will be almost everywhere and we’ll simply link our devices to a nearby display, or project information onto whatever surface is handy.

Why will these trends in particular help speed technology adoption? Because together, they’ll make computing more powerful, more affordable, more portable, more connected, and easier to use. In the process, these trends will help lower some of the barriers that limit technology access for so many people in Africa today: barriers like cost, physical access, and knowledge of specialized technical skills.

Impact on Africa

To understand the impact of these changes on Africa, it helps to take a closer look at the way emerging economies are constructed. In my travels, I’ve come to believe that most developing nations actually consist of three distinct markets.

There is a market of relatively affluent businesses and consumers who enjoy the same level of technology sophistication as the users in any developed market.

There is an emerging middle class that aspires to full participation in a knowledge-based economy but that can’t yet afford to take advantage of high-end computing. Although there are exceptions—such as South Africa—this segment tends to be less well developed in emerging economies in Africa than in some other areas of the world.

The third market is what most people think of when they picture emerging markets—the people for whom technology is largely irrelevant because they still lack access to basic infrastructure and economic opportunities.

The next wave of computing will benefit these segments in different ways.

Let’s start with the last group. And let me start by being clear that information and communications technology obviously won’t solve all the issues they face. But in a world where a cell phone will have the power of a personal computer and wireless networks will provide access to the Internet from almost any location, technology can have a significant impact.

For this segment, Internet access and more powerful and inexpensive computing will help spread knowledge about successful approaches to agriculture and basic technologies that have helped other communities move beyond sheer subsistence living.

These changes will also have a dramatic impact on the tens of millions of African children who don’t attend school today. Technology can help us provide educational opportunities even where resources are limited – enabling any teacher or student with basic digital technology to access world-class educational materials.

These trends will also help address issues of scale in healthcare. Where access to doctors is limited, a mobile phone linked to a cheap display will enable people to get world-class treatment and information from doctors in a hospital hundreds of miles away.

For the emerging middle class, access to more powerful, more affordable computing will support the rise of small business and local entrepreneurs—vital to building sustainable economic growth and opportunity. We already see evidence of this model in South Africa, where a thriving local software economy provides high paying jobs for tens of thousands of people.

For people in both of these segments, these trends can help transform the way government services are delivered. Imagine a service in rural towns and villages that provides local access to forms, applications, information, and documentation through a kiosk connected to the Internet. No more long, costly trips into a distant urban center. No more long, time-wasting lines.

For the already-affluent, the next wave of computing will drive the transition from economies that are based on natural resources to economies that create value through innovation. And as the educational and skill levels of the other two segments rise, it will provide access to a workforce that is capable of competing in the international marketplace.

Success Factors for Progress

Of course none of these things will happen automatically. Technology alone won’t turn these goals into achievements. Technology is simply a tool that empowers people to make progress.

Real progress will take real commitment. Governments must commit to transparency and to eliminating the barriers that hamper entrepreneurship, business creation, and economic opportunity. Some countries in Africa have made considerable progress. But there is more work to do.

There are three practical steps I believe we can take today to drive short-term benefit and longer-term development.

The first is Internet bandwidth. Access to Web-based information and communications is essential for everything from expanding educational opportunities to improving healthcare and providing access to government services. Supporting the creation of the appropriate infrastructure is vital.

Second, telecommunications deregulation could help improve the quality of fixed line telephony and open the doors to the even broader expansion of cellular communications.

Finally, reducing taxes on information and communications technology could help create local markets that are more conducive to technology adoption and growth. Today in many countries across Africa, high taxes on imported technology limit the affordability of computing and hinder efforts to deliver the benefits of technology to people.

I also believe that partnership is essential. To address the issues that African nations face, collaboration between private sector, governments, and nongovernmental organizations is critical. Together, we must invest in education and in the development of local businesses to drive positive social and economic change.

Cheick Diarra, the regional chairman for Microsoft has said many times that we believe in the incredible potential of Africa. We see how technology can help the continent overcome many of the challenges it faces and become truly competitive in the global marketplace.

I’m here today to echo this sentiment – that Microsoft remains firmly committed to our business, our people, our customers, and our partners across Africa; that our goal is to work in close partnership with all of you here today; and that together, we can drive sustainable economic growth and enable people and businesses throughout Africa to reach their full potential.