Smackdown: Google, Microsoft and IBM in sub-Saharan Africa

American companies looking to diversify investments and expand grips in other markets are eyeing sub-Saharan Africa, and for good reason: The International Monetary Fund expects continuous annual growth of 6 percent and minimal effect from the recent turmoil of financial markets. Here's how the tech giants are faring.

The n00b:
Internet usage in Kenya and Rwanda is far from ubiquitous, as Fast Company reported in May, but that hasn't stopped Google from partnering with Kenyan telecom giant Safaricom to provide the blue hues of Gmail with a free Safaricom.com address (Google ads included), as well as e-mail and calendar apps for some Rwandan universities and government departments. Despite the lack of demand (less than 1% of eligible users had registered by late February), Google isn't too worried. Its slow and steady entry into the market--and with a local partner--is smart. Google may not be winning yet, but it's not losing either.

The evil foreigners:
The Wall Street Journal ran an investigative piece earlier this week about how Microsoft, operating in South Africa for more than 15 years, has tried to dominate the sub-Saharan African market by landing government contracts for Windows and pushing out the lower cost (or no cost) Linux. But the prices remained high for African businesses--close to U.S. price tags--and a pilot project to provide Namibian schools with computers and teacher-training for free ended with fewer refurbished computers than promised (and many broken ones too). The transition to the Namibian government was ill-planned as the government center meant to take over the maintenance of the program shut down after nine months. While Windows could be cheaper in the long run and more consistent than Linux, the African governments only have the resources for a low-cost operating system like Linux at the moment. And Microsoft hasn't exactly been whole-hearted at providing full training and support. If you're going to be "generous," you might as well go the full mile.

The wise men:
With a near 60-year-presence in sub-Saharan Africa, IBM announced a new surge of investments last December of $120 million for two years. In June, it opened its African Innovation Center in Johannesburg, complete with a "cloud computing" center to help its sub-Saharan African clients access data and any other necessary computing tools, whether business or educational, through this central server system. Companies and institutions will be able to save time with complex computing burdens off their shoulders. Africa is growing and IBM knows it needs a piece of it--and what better way than to start by targeting businesses that need all the IT help they can get? All those years could really pay off--maybe Microsoft should take a cue or two.

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