By Marianne David
While most countries have a vision that IT will change the world and that it can have a significant impact on the lives of its people, translating that vision to reality isn’t an easy task – instead, it’s all about the political will, discipline and commitment to see it through, asserted Vice President Public Sector (Asia) for Microsoft Ken Wye Saw.
Speaking to the Daily FT in an exclusive interview, he said: “I think Sri Lanka has its own vision as well. However, to translate that vision to actual reality is not an easy journey. Countries where we see this breakthrough happen is where political will, discipline and commitment intersect very well.”
Commenting on whether he sees this in Sri Lanka, he said that he sees it now because the distractions of the past are gone and there is peace. “I think you can make a lot of effort. The key thing is looking at where IT can help and what it can do effectively.”
IT and literacy
Asserting that IT drives literacy, Saw emphasised that firstly, to use IT, there must be basic literacy. “When you have literacy, the magic happens. And when people are connected, the magic happens. We’ve seen countries that are able to connect citizens can drive a lot of efficiencies within Government. Government itself can use technology effectively to communicate and to improve their responses.”
In today’s world, Saw noted that governments have to work in what he described as the “new normal”.
“We cannot wait to act, like in the financial crisis. If you have an economic stimulus package, you cannot spend six months just talking about it. To drive the conversation fast enough, you need data and decision making fast. Technology helps you gather data, sift through it, collaborate and get to a decision faster. We see many governments around the world do that pretty effectively.”
IT and education
One of the fundamental pillars where governments see technology being used effectively is in education, he noted, adding that in the long term education will change the way people work and raise the level. In Sri Lanka, he said this will be very effective with the Partners in Learning programme, the main programme through which Microsoft drives education initiatives.
According to Microsoft Country Manager Sriyan de Silva Wijeyeratne, Microsoft Sri Lanka has entered into an MoU with the Ministry of Education through this programme and over the last six years, it has engaged about 200,000 students and teachers in training and activities. Through some of the work it has done, it has had an impact on about 25% of the total student population in the country.
Added Saw: “In Sri Lanka, it’s 200,000; in the whole of Asia it’s 40 to 50 million. That’s huge and hopefully when this generation comes to the workforce, they will start to make a difference. That’s where most governments pin their hope – education becomes key. Microsoft is very involved in this.”
However, he asserted that it’s not just about excessive technology: “It’s very easy to say ‘okay, it’s education’ and put a computer and be done with it. No, it’s really about what technology brings and how we bring technology to life and how we then improve teaching and learning methods. It’s not about technology but how we use technology to keep students engaged. Education is a very strong pillar.”
IT and government operations
The next pillar is within government operations, he pointed out. “How do you improve efficiencies within government departments, how does a government work within itself and across government agencies and with people, their constituents and business? When governments work within themselves and across government departments, I think the biggest challenge is political will. Where you are able to come to consensus, things happen.”
For example, he said that some countries don’t even have a standardised messaging infrastructure for governments to communicate with each other; nor do they have an email address for everybody.
“When you take a country like Singapore, everything is standardised. That is just a starting point. You need to have the infrastructure for that to happen. For example, in the Singapore Government today, most citizens don’t have to file their tax returns, because your employer will submit your income information to the Inland Revenue Department, you don’t have to even confirm that. The tax is processed automatically. What does that do? It saves extra processing and it’s fast. There are many examples of applications like that across the whole of Asia,” he added.
IT and healthcare
The third area – which he said was still in its infancy – is healthcare; using technology to help healthcare, patient management and patient records.
“This is less so in emerging markets, which has a younger population. We see more and more governments looking to invest in this area. I am not too sure how good the systems are here but I bet that you don’t have your full medical history on record,” Saw noted.
Saw also touched on the aspect of paranoia regarding defence and cyber security: “Take WikiLeaks for example. I am 50-50 on WikiLeaks, given its focus on sensationalism. What it does is make governments aware that they need to protect information better and if you don’t do it well, you actually find yourself compromised unnecessarily.”
Emphasising that the threat is also changing – “it may not be a bomb coming, but something that will cause much more damage such as a threat that may damage your systems” – he recalled how Georgia’s systems were shut down by the Russians when Georgia and Russia went to war.
Commenting on whether the Sri Lankan Government’s focus on cyber security is adequate, Wijeyeratne noted that “adequate is a relative term”.
“I think you will only find out when something happens. On the other hand when you have really good security, you don’t know if you someone is trying to attack you. Let’s say nothing happens for the last one week. Is that because you had really good security or because there were no attacks? Unfortunately, the thing about cyber security is that you don’t know when it’s great and you don’t really publicise it either,” he added.
“A few months ago, Microsoft entered into a security cooperation with the Government and is supporting the Government on this front. I know they are interested and focusing a lot on security. The focus and attention is there, but it is difficult to say on the outside whether it is adequate and how much is there.”
Saw asserted that therefore, when a government is not connected and does not use IT, there is less of a threat, but as you move up the curve, it becomes a bigger threat; that’s where you need to understand the dangers between using common off-the-shelf systems versus open soft systems versus proprietary systems. Each has different risks and you need to know how you mitigate and counter them, he added.
Focus on security
From Microsoft’s point of view, with its trustworthy computing initiative, he said that it had tremendous focus on security and contrary to what people think – because they still have images of the old Windows that can crash or be hacked and so on – what Microsoft is doing with security nowadays is at the leading edge, he revealed.
“When we built XP, it was for ease of use. When we built Vista, it was to be a safe product. When you build a house with all the doors open, everybody loves it because it’s open. But with Vista, we closed the doors. And then when people wanted to do something, the door was closed, so they had to get used to a new way of programming. Windows 7 is further on and builds on the security infrastructure. It’s more secure,” Saw added.
According to Wijeyeratne, Windows 7 crossed 300 million in just a few months. It was launched in Sri Lankan in October 2009 and the response has been “absolutely phenomenal” he asserted. Many top corporates in Sri Lanka have entered into enterprise agreements with Microsoft, as a result of which they are entitled to numerous upgrades and most of them have chosen to install it across the aboard.
Saw noted that the danger of XP is that it’s been around for so long, “people know where the holes are. If you haven’t patched it diligently, you can be attacked. You are only as strong as your weakest point.”
On the question of security, Wijeyeratne said what they find most of the time is that it’s not the product that had a problem but the situation of people not regularly updating it. “The other issue is that people think they have genuine software because the awareness levels on piracy and so on are not high. People assume that when they bought the computer and asked for a genuine computer, the software that came with it is genuine. Some vendors supply some models with genuine software, but not all. Suddenly when it all crashes, they find out the hard way.”
So what’s the best way to check for genuine software? Either flip your computer over and check for the Microsoft sticker or get online, go to Windows update and verify whether it’s genuine, they said. While any critical patch is available to all windows users, even pirated users, everything else is only for original users.
The risk with pirated software is that it often comes with Trojans and it’s now more malicious, Saw revealed.
Benefits of using genuine Windows
Touching on the benefits of using genuine Windows, Wijeyeratne noted that the Windows Starter pack costs Rs. 6,500 to Rs. 7,000 and is perfect for home users and anything they do on the computer on a regular basis.
“A lot of people are fairly surprised to find that it’s only that much. For students, we’ve given away a lot of software free. If you’re a student, you almost don’t need to pay anything. Beyond that, even at the very highest end for businesses, it costs about Rs. 20,000 to Rs. 22,000. Microsoft’s philosophy is that we charge you upfront and then we provide you all these things for the lifetime. Some other people might say let me give you the software for free and then charge you monthly for supporting the product. People might think it’s better to take the free product but they end up paying a lot more. With Microsoft you get a lifetime warranty and regular upgrades; we take the onus of keeping you secure.”
Saw added: “When you use genuine software, it’s beyond just protecting your PC. You get to experience the richness of the product and you will be amazed!”
Microsoft also launched a product called Security Essentials recently, which is a free virus guard that is given on any genuine Windows licence. “When you talk about the benefit of genuine Windows, it’s not just on the price point,” said Wijeyeratne, “now we are proving this free virus guard which you can download on any genuine Windows machine. It’s not only if it’s new, if you have an existing genuine machine, we will give it to you for free.”
Microsoft has seen 43,000 downloads of this product in Sri Lanka in the month of January alone and Wijeyeratne says they are very encouraged by this because it means more and more people are making their machines secure. “This is one of the best things we’ve done, offering tremendous value for genuine Microsoft users.”
In conclusion, Wijeyeratne drew attention to the e-Sri Lanka programme, which he said was “great” and noted that now that things are a lot more stable in the country, people are looking at acceleration with regard to IT adoption: “Everyone is moving in the right direction and that can only mean one thing – things will move up!”