On the Information Superhighway

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The wind of ICT renaissance is blowing across the world at an irrevocable pace, and Oman has identified its potential as a key enabler of economic and social development. But the country has to focus more on harnessing its human resources and developing indigenous solutions in order to emerge as a regional information powerhouse.

Information technology and telecommunications have become the main engine of development in the third millennium. That is why we have attached importance to producing a national strategy for developing people’s potential and skills in this field. We are keeping a close eye on the significant steps that are being taken in this respect as we aspire to push the Sultanate towards the boundaries of new knowledge…”

– His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said at the annual inauguration of the Council of Oman on November 11, 2008

One of the phenomenal aspects of the Information Communication Technology (ICT) revolution the world over is the unprecedented way it turns our life inside out. Unlike all other previous revolutions in human history which had contributed in different ways to build our civilisation, the current digital revolution is transforming our life in its entirety. There is hardly anyone in the world – be it laymen or people of consequence, and no area of life – be it governance, education, banking, manufacturing, communication, entertainment and what not- that remain untouched by the sweeping influence of the tidal wave of information technology, in one way or the other.

The rapidity and ease with which the society at large adapts to the latest technologies can be seen everywhere, from the Global Positioning System (GPS) which guides you when you lose your way while on a desert safari, to numerous personalised apps at your smart phone; from a smart class room where students come with MacBook and log on to KhanAcademy.org to listen to various lectures and video clips while their teacher can see who is watching what, to the online facilities to book your tickets and check into and check out of a hotel.

No technology or invention in human history has assumed such a ubiquitous presence and remarkably inclusive nature. While even the printing machine of Johannes Guttenberg had arguably failed to address the blind and the illiterate, the ICT leaves no one in the lurch.

Alluring prospects
Oman was not late to wake up to this realisation as it has identified the importance of Information Technology as a key enabler of economic, social and community development and laid down a comprehensive strategy to create a knowledge-based economy in its Vision 2020. A slew of initiatives by the Information Technology Authority has marked Oman’s vault into the modern age of ICT.

The last decade saw the number of internet users in the Sultanate rising from a meagre four per cent to nearly 70 per cent with an ever increasing demand for broadband subscription and mobile internet. The e-Oman strategy of the government seeks to bridge the digital divide and make e-government services available to all the people in the country. The ITA has launched a number of IT-related infrastructure projects, including an e-government services portal, a gateway to the services offered by government departments online.

According to Business Monitor Internationa (BMI) forecasts, the total size of Oman’s IT market is estimated to be $363mn in 2012, up from an estimated $339mn in 2011. It forecasts a CAGR of six per cent for 2012-2016. The Omani addressable software market is projected by BMI at $70mn in 2012 and is expected to grow at a CAGR of seven per cent over 2012-2016. In 2011, there was a pickup in project flow from significant IT verticals such as oil and gas and banking. The Omani IT services market is expected to be worth around $96mn in 2012, accounting for about 27 per cent of all IT spending in the country.

Kit Lloyd, who recently landed in the Sultanate as the new country general manager of Gulf Business Machines (GBM) bringing 27 years of experience with IBM world over, waxes eloquent about Oman’s prospects to emerge as an IT hub in the region. “Oman has a great opportunity to leapfrog the rest of the region in Information Technology,” he says. “The world economic forum has ranked Oman 40th in world for networking access. That is a remarkable achievement.

The government’s focus on developing skills in information technology is commendable. Knowledge Oasis Muscat (KOM) is a physical embodiment of the commitment to training people and it can serve as a magnet for more investment by foreign companies. The establishment of a centre like KOM is a great step forward.”

Inclusive governance
As part of its e-government initiatives, the country has accelerated the adoption of ICT across the public sector in order to deliver more efficient, transparent, more inclusive and more sustainable government to all citizens. Highlighting Oman’s notable achievements in this area was the recently published UN e-government readiness survey in which the Sultanate was ranked 64th among 193 countries, advancing 18 positions from the previous survey.

The Sultanate has rightly understood the increasing role of e-government in promoting inclusive and participatory development of people. In an important step towards this direction, Muscat Municipality opened in May 2012 a state-of-the-art 24-hour call centre which enable city dwellers to register their complaints about all municipal services by dialing 1111. Be it a burned out streetlight next door or the cockroach problem at home, within two minutes of receiving your call, the call centre traces the number of the official concerned with this particular job out of the 2,500 plus employees of the Municipality and sends to him/her an SMS. For each complaint the call centre gives a ticket number to the caller for further follow-up and once the problem gets rectified, it sends a confirmation message.

This advanced call centre which was developed by Modern Information Technology (ITON) includes three support lines. The first line receives complaints and customer care executives record the complaints before passing it onto the second support line which forwards it to the concerned directorate or department and follows up on the process. The third support line, which represents the concerned body, replies to the second line with the proposed solution or action taken. The Municipality plans to bring all important hotlines in the country under its contact centre wherein callers will just need to dial 1111 for complaints regarding any public service.

ITON has done a similar project for the Public Authority for Water and Electricity (PAWE). Whether you call for applying for a new water connection, or changing the metre, the system passses it onto the person/office concerned after mapping all the 35 offices of the PAWE across Oman. In addition, the Ministry of Housing has successfully implemented ITON’s flagship solution e-Office, to clearly configure business processes, leading to better process performance in terms of turnaround time and quality, without compromising information security and safe upkeep of digital assets. This project has enabled the company to win the prestigious His Majesty’s Award for eProject in 2011.

“We are proud to be part of the digital vision of the country by creating innovative platforms locally in tune with global trends,” says Shiva Prasad Vakalapudi, CEO of ITON. “ITON continuously contributes to develop the Omani digital society and e-government through many projects concerning development of the IT industry in the Sultanate and also to expand research and development activities in all sectors of the national economy. ITON has a deep understanding of the user community and business dynamics of government organisations of this region which in turn brings a lot of value and performance efficiency into the organsation. ITON has 180 highly qualified and experienced resources in the region and has its regional centre of excellence based in Muscat”.

ITON has been putting a lot of efforts using R&D centres in enhancing its platform, which is being rechristened as ITONX, to scale up the adaptability of new technology and functional innovations from time to time. Vakalapudi adds that ITON has several national initiatives such as e-visa system implementation and has more than 300 associates globally at various locations like USA, Canada, Australia, Middle East, Africa and India.

Another most important e-government initiative getting underway is the National Public Key Infrastructure (PKI). IMTAC is providing the infrastructure solution for this project which will be operational in the next year. The PKI is an advanced public infrastructure solution which primarily enables transactions to be digitally signed and exchanged in a very secure format and this can have multiple applications in banking, government and stock exchanges. Says Fareed Al Hinai, vice chairman of IMTAC, “Today you do a lot of transactions via manual signatures which will be completely converted to digital signatures once the PKI is in place.

It is part of ITA’s digital society strategy. It has multiple applications such as issuing certificate for housing, registration when you buy and sell properties, issuing shares etc. IMTAC which set up the country’s prestigious National Payment system that functions 24/7 has worked on multiple projects with the ITA, banks and ministries. “We have a very successful track record in implementing large national level projects in the Sultanate,” adds Al Hinai.

The Central Bank of Oman’s (CBO) OmanNet, a central automated teller machine (ATM) and point of sale (POS) national switch, developed by IMTAC as a local partner, is one of the most sophisticated e-payment systems in the Middle East. Al Hinai says, “We are proud to be part of it. Nobody in West Asia has such an integrated system which enables the migration of all financial institutions onto a common state-of-the-art technology. The system is a showcase of the Sultanate’s adoption of advanced technology and has received positive reviews regarding its efficiency.”

Proving its strength
Oman’s capabilities to provide sophisticated digital facilities were put on a real test when the country hosted the second Asian Beach games. Bahwan IT did a marvelous job by providing quality IT services, software and timing equipment to conduct the games successfully. “It involved the planning of the entire services, registration of visitors, athletes, sportspersons, officials and connecting all the three venues,” says MK Janaki Raman, general manager, Bahwan IT. There were 40 countries and 14 games and we managed to do it so well that we were appreciated by the International Olympic Committee.” Bahwan IT also handled the entire procedure of the recent elections to the Majlis al Shura which included the registration of voters, designing and printing the ballot papers, distribution of voting equipment in all the wilayats, supporting the digital counting of the votes by using high-end scanners and online publication of the results.

Integrated Systems has also executed a couple of high-profile IT infrastructure and network projects for the government recently. “The company offers state-of-the-art technologies focused on IT infrastructure, networking, security, unified communication system and services and most of our products are aimed at the government, corporates such as banks and public companies,” says Haitham Abu Nasser, general manager/partner, Integrated Systems. The company brings the latest technologies from well-known and reliable vendors the world over to serve its customers.

Clearing Obstacles
But a moot point is how far Oman has gone to promote its own indigenous software development and harness its own human resources to usher in a productive and innovative IT culture. Fawzi Al Harrasi, managing director, Exceed IT highlights the importance of investing more on software development in order to tap the full potential of the country. “Unfortunately we do not have more companies who are serious about developing innovative solutions unique for the country. We are more used to trading products than producing solutions.”

“We have to go beyond importing customised products from principals aboard. We do not have bigger IT projects creating solutions for the regional and international markets at large, despite having a strong higher education system in place and a lot of other advantages such as political and economic stability.” Fawzi attributes this failure to various causes including the lack of support from financial institutions who hesitate to fund IT companies. “We lack venture capital investment which is the main driver of innovation.

Innovation is there in people’s mind but they cannot bring it into reality because it requires resources, highly skilled people, and funding.” Fawzi who has recently been to Silicon Valley has seen how a competitive atmosphere coupled with the support of venture capitalists enables fresh graduates to come out with innovative solutions. In addition, as an oil producing country we expect everything to come from the government. He says that though the government has a comprehensive ICT strategy, we need to be faster in walking the talk. “Attracting more MNCs to operate from Oman can serve as a solution; but they must transfer knowledge to the locals and contribute to enhance local talent, otherwise it may end up as a mere real-estate business similar to what happens in Dubai Internet City.”

Exceed Academy accords more importance to building and developing national human resources. It picks up young graduates from different universities in Oman and abroad and trains them on various Microsoft technologies. It also gets them employed with various government departments and companies such as Bank Muscat and Omantel. Exceed has teamed up with Microsoft to give training to young Omanis in different programmes. It has trained over 200 people for capacity building and has conducted a 12-month programme for 60 fresh graduates out of which 55 have completed the course.

S Jayakumar, general manager of International Information Technology Company (IITC) is of the opinion that though Oman is adapting to new technology the industry requires a major push in lowering the cost of telecommunication. “Communication cost is still pretty high. That does not allow companies especially the smaller entities to do a lot of consolidation works and centralise the system.” He also adds that the government is investing more money than it was doing before but the decision making cycle is a bit slow.” He thinks that getting the right resources at the right time is one of the big challenges when you have a project in hand.

“It is not easy to find the right skillsets. That is why we have trained them a lot. People who come out of the Universities are not equipped for the job market. It requires some amount of effort to train them and make them prepared to meet the needs of the industry. But hopefully things are looking better. We are seeing more brighter and committed students coming out from universities.”

Apart from providing training to its Omani employees, IITC offers training to college students. In 2001, it did a summer training programme and conducted a six-month training programme for 25 fresh graduates before appointing them as its employees. Now the company has a lot of Omanis working as its technical staff.

Primarily a system integrator providing established solutions to the customers in the Sultanate, IITC pursues all the latest trends in the technology such as data centre, server consolidation, network consolidation, virtualisation etc. In order to address the specific requirements of the market, IITC has teamed up with various international partners such as CISCO, HP, Microsoft and Oracle. It also works with large system integrators from various part of the world such as Wipro from India for large application projects and Tech Mahindra for telecom applications. It has also tied up with Finacle from Infosys for banking services.

Rahul Bhavsar, CEO, Gulf Infotech stresses the importance of trusting technology to make all our ICT pursuits more effective and forward looking. Oman government has done enough to promote IT in the country but government organisations are reluctant to accept technology. He says he would be really happy if the government says that the semi government sectors can opt for cloud solutions. He wonders why people are still reluctant to give Internet access to the employees. “Some of them block Facebook and Linkedin at offices. It’s high time we changed our mindset. Recently the Khimji Ramdas group has provided internet access to all its employees. But still some people think that internet access will make people unproductive.

But trust me 15-20 minute access to Internet or Facebook will increase their productivity; it will make employees happier and more productive and they won’t crib. If you deny access to Internet at office, employees will manage to do it on their own mobile devices which will take more time. YouTube is a learning technology where you can learn a lot of things including sales techniques. Khan’s academy is a very good example of this.”

Sajid Ali, general manager – IT, Oman Cables Industry, stresses the importance of information security function. “Many think that information security is all about antivirus or firewalls,” he says. “Information security is much more than that; it talks about confidentiality, integrity and availability of information.” He suggests a major initiative (preferably on a government level) to increase awareness about the role of IT in business. “As far as ITA is concerned, the work being done by them in bringing a digital culture is excellent, and is well appreciated, but awareness is the key. I believe most of the organisations in Oman are either not aware about the existence of laws on ‘Cyber Crime’ and ‘Electronic Transactions’, and even if they do, they don’t know how it applies to them. I would also like to appreciate the work done by Oman CERT in creating awareness about information security, but again, a lot more needs to be done.”

Log onto cloud
Cloud is one of the latest buzzwords on Oman’s IT landscape. The country is making rapid headway in cloud computing. For instance, Gulf IT which sells Google Apps, Google’s cloud computing solutions, has notched up 100 plus customers in Oman within a short span. The company has recently completed three years of its operation in Oman and is looking to expand its presence to UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain in the next couple of years. “Today everybody is talking about cloud and people have accepted the technology,” says Bhavsar. “Apart from Google, now HP, IBM, Microsoft and various others are giving cloud services. Initially we had to educate people about the benefit of moving to cloud. When we started there were two million customers globally and there were big names associated with Google such as Jaguar Landover.

That gave a good start and the buzz was already there; and when we started the recession was going and so the cloud worked out to be a cost-effective solution. We got initial customers especially those who did not want to spend heavily on servers and software. They moved to cloud to see whether they could save money. Our first customer was Muscat Pharmacy and that led us to get more references and now the whole Khimji Ramdas Group is our customer. We started our Indian operation last year with offices in Pune, Mumbai and Ahmedabad where we build our own products and tools for Google Apps.”

Haitham also considers cloud computing as a major trend in the IT industry because everyone tries to use hand-held devices such as smartphones and tablet computers in their businesses.

However like any change in technology, cloud is also facing some initial resistance especially because of some concerns about its security. “Cloud computing is still in the awareness stage and people have not so far embraced it fully but I think the change will definitely happen and people will be more willing to accept it as long as their data is safe and SLAs are in place,” says Al Hinai. He reveals that IMTAC is looking to partner with international cloud providers such as HP to provide enhanced cloud services to its customers.

But Llyod believes that there is no point in casting aspersion on the security features of cloud. He says that security concern is a thing of the past as there are a number ways to make your virtual system 100 per cent secure in the cloud. Look at how all the giants such as Stratford Stockholm, banks, insurance companies and telecos are moving onto cloud without being afraid of putting their data on the cloud. Look at how other organsiations in the world have transformed. Cloud opens up your platform for innovation.

Ten years ago you had to invest millions of dollars in a large system. But today you get better functionality for a few dollars. The more technology gets matured the faster security concerns will disappear.” He also observes that the new generation coming into business management position has grown up with cloud. They are used to putting their data in the public network and are aware of its benefits unlike the old guards of the 1960s and 70s.

Llyod who has run a cloud computing business in many parts of the world also shares his vision about enabling the Sultanate as a regional cloud service provider. “Oman has to develop its own local cloud services – for Oman by Oman. I hope the government will introduce local cloud services to make sure that the services are offered locally,” he avers. But a major challenge lies in making people switch over to new technologies as some of them have heavily invested in existing infrastructure. He admits that since the change of mindset is hard to come, the government can play a big role by investing in new technologies.

Although IITC was one of the first companies to introduce cloud based applications in the country by bringing MessageLabs, an anti-virus and anti-spam application from UK-based symantec, six years ago, the company currently does not sell any cloud based implementation. Says Jayakumar, “Right now cloud has not picked up as a technology in Oman; but we have some private cloud applications. We have centralised all our applications to a data centre which is used by various branches of the IITC. That kind of consolidation is happening.”

Baby Sam, director, marketing, Al Kay’s International believes that although cloud computing is relatively in its infancy in the Omani IT market, it is picking up momentum quite exponentially. “We expect the major businesses to soon start the transition to cloud at least partially. Also as cloud computing services could prove a boon to SMEs by reducing their overheads, a lot of these enterprises are keen on making the move to cloud based infrastructure.

Al Kay’s International, which won the ISO 9001:2008 quality system award in 2011, tied up with Microsoft and Epicor for ERP practices in 2012. It has also agreements with four major corporates for its ERP implementation. “We delve into everything from auto ID solutions like Biometric and mobility solutions to ERP and CRM products like Microsoft Dynamics, Epicor, Maxim and Microsoft CRM,” says Baby Sam. “Our vertical applications include campus management system, HR and payroll, retail POS, hospitality management software, fixed asset tracking and even customised applications to suit the specific needs of the individual organisation or business. We also offer power solutions like UPS, generator, stabilisers, invertors and battery systems.” However, automotive, hospitality, retail, manufacturing, governmental, trading and services sectors comprise 80 per cent of Al Kay’s total revenues.

For a class room revolution
Another area where ICT is bringing about a radical shift is education. The Internet has proved to be making a real difference in educating children. Smart class rooms, innovative teaching technologies and various digital education initiatives serve to cultivate creativity and explore multiple types of intelligence. Needless to mention about the access to a vast amount of information and the facility to learn without any barrier about time and location.

In Oman, Nawras Business has recently linked the Ministry of Education (MoE) with a fast internet connection to support every state school with quicker access, better web browsing, improved data connectivity and enhanced study support. Teachers, students and parents visiting the main MoE educational portal are now able to enjoy this web experience since the new portal www.moe.gov.om went live in May 2012. In addition, over 140 state owned schools across the Sultanate will be using the Nawras Internet Professional (NIP) service delivered via WiMAX technology.

Gulf IT provides various innovative free education services through Google Apps in nine higher education institutes in Oman including the University of Nizwa where there are 8,000 users. “Google does not charge anything for it except for a nominal deployment fee,” says Bhavsar. For educational purposes, there are Google docs and Google portal. The former helps students to create documents, submit assignments, share it with other colleagues, work together and invite others to add to it.

The latter helps them build a project site, store all these information and share it. There are 10 million plus students using these services globally including 20,000 students in Oman. Bhavsar considers this as a long term investment. “Why is Google giving it free? The students of today are the businessmen of tomorrow, the technology goes along with them; any student coming out of University of Nizwa or Majan College is ready with Google apps.”

IMTAC also offers a mix of infrastructure and software services to SQU and various other private universities such as German University of Technology (GUtech). In addition, the company has an education technology department which works very closely with the Ministry of Manpower and vocational training colleges to provide them with a wide variety of educational services such as labs, educational equipment etc.

Bahwan IT was part of the National PC Initiative (NPC) of the government to give personal computers to various families, schools and teachers. IITC has also worked closely with a lot of education institutions such as SQU, Ministry Education, and Ministry of Higher Education, to provide infrastructure services, networks and other products. It has conducted specialised training for faculties. In the near future, the company is looking to explore areas such as smart schools in Oman.

Aligning IT with business
On the manufacturing front, while production is going digital across the world, Oman has still a long way to go to catch up with the global trend. “The manufacturing sector in Oman is not adapting to the latest technologies and innovation compared to other countries in the world,” says Sajid Ali. “I am surprised to see that in many companies either an IT department does not exist, or even if it does, it is seen as a PC and printer repair shop. The idea of having an IT department which is part of the corporate setup, ensures IT alignment with business, and ensures that technology is used at its best to help the business, but is very rare.”

Baby Sam reveals that his company intends to develop vertical solutions in the areas of manufacturing and construction as these industries are expected to see a big leap in the years to come. Bahwan IT also supports various manufacturing companies in Sohar. It is giving the complete hardware and software services to Oman Refinery.

Sajid Ali explains that the challenges faced by manufacturing companies are much more than a typical trading or service organisation. “Besides having typical challenges like retaining customers, increasing marketshare, maintaining competitive edge, etc, we have to understand that in a manufacturing company, profits are made and lost in the plant, hence additional challenges such as optimising the utilisation of man, machine and material comes into the picture. Additionally, since we are dealing with metals, where the prices are volatile, managing metal prices is an additional challenge which we face.”

Oman Cables uses some advanced technological solutions to manage these challenges. The ERP solution comprising sales, procurement, warehouse, finance, quality, maintenance and production management solution gives insight into what is going on in the enterprise, and the accurate information it gives help take timely decisions. Specific cable design software helps the company in designing a well-engineered, optimum design of a cable which serves the customer requirement at an optimum cost. The MES (Manufacturing Execution System) solution, which is currently under implementation, will give the company ‘live’ insight on efficiencies of machines, work in progress etc. The shop floor control solutions allow the company to capture plant activities regarding an order directly at the machine level, thus avoiding delay in the capture of information on the floor; and hence the information available to the decision makers is nearly ‘live”.

Upbeat potential
As Oman is fast catching up in the ICT sweepstakes, it promises big business opportunities for the companies. As Vakalapudi expects, the US-Oman free trade agreement, which came into effect in January 2009, has provided many direct and indirect benefits for the ICT sector beyond the direct relaxation of barriers to trade. However, many companies from UAE and other GCC countries opening up their offices in Oman have triggered some price wars in the local market. Although they may not eat into the business of established players with proven track record to a great extent, they are seeking to win the projects by hook or by crook. For all these imponderables, Oman still continues to be an attractive IT destination for local, regional and international players and therefore its prospects are bright to emerge as a regional powerhouse.


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