Microsoft was long known for founder Bill Gate’s vision of “a computer on every desk and in every home”. Today the software company can be said to have played a role in every home in Dubai at least.
That’s because in January 2017 the city’s utility, the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA), turned to Microsoft when it wanted a tool to help reduce outages and improve productivity at its power plants.
As a result, DEWA has adopted Microsoft HoloLens, an augmented reality headset resembling a futuristic pair of safety goggles. “This showcases on a global level how a utility company can really innovate,” says Samer Abu-Ltaif, Microsoft’s newly-appointed President of Middle East and Africa.
The wearable device contains a holographic computer, which allows users to overlay digital projections on physical objects in their view, and control the display using eye movements, gestures and voice commands. DEWA’s staff can use it to visualize interactive 3D models of their plants’ equipment, or speak with an expert through Skype while carrying out maintenance and support.
Released last year, Microsoft markets HoloLens to companies at $5,000 per device. It’s used by everyone from automotive designers to NASA astronauts—and now workers at power plants. HoloLens is one of many new digital innovations Microsoft is promoting to customers in the region, where it’s targeting opportunities in education, oil and gas, aviation and more.
At the helm is Abu-Ltaif, a 14-year veteran of Microsoft. The 50-year-old, who hails from Lebanon, was promoted earlier this year, replacing longtime head Ali Faramawy, who moved to a global role.
It’s an intriguing time for a promotion. The Redmond, Washington-based company is forging into new business lines—part of a global push to reassert itself as a leader in innovation and creativity in a rapidly changing IT industry.
As the dominant software provider in the PC era, for years the company, co-founded by Bill Gates and Paul Allen in 1975, enjoyed its status as one of the world’s most powerful tech firms. Times have changed. The company’s PC business has slowed in recent years. Meanwhile, disruptive new technologies such as cloud computing are now ascendant. Where Microsoft’s Windows operating systems used to dominate, now Android and iOS-powered mobile devices are increasingly commonplace.
Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, has reinvented the company. Since taking over in 2014, Nadella has moved Microsoft away from a failing mobile strategy that focused on producing smartphones, tablets and mobile operating systems. Now, Nadella has Microsoft aggressively pursuing technologies like cloud computing and Artificial Intelligence.
The changes have been well-received: Microsoft’s stock has recently risen to an all-time high. For the fiscal year ending in June 2017, company revenues hit $90 billion, up nearly $5 billion from the previous year. “Globally, Microsoft is well-positioned to address the changing needs of enterprise IT,” says Santhosh Rao, Principal Research Analyst for U.S.-based IT research firm Gartner.
The emphasis is now on digital transformation. It was the topic seemingly on everyone’s mind in October when Abu-Ltaif dropped by GITEX, Dubai’s annual tech trade show extravaganza. “I walk around and everybody is talking digital transformation. Everybody is talking cloud,” says Abu-Ltaif.
He’s quick to point out some of the newest technology innovations the U.S.-based software giant showcased at the event. There was a demo on how A.I. can be used to improve workplace safety and another on how different industries can use wearable devices. There was also a showcase for LinkedIn, the professional networking platform that Microsoft acquired last year for a whopping $26.2 billion. They’re all part of Microsoft’s digital transformation strategy.
At the center of that is its cloud platform, Microsoft Azure. Although Microsoft does not reveal earnings by region, it reports that the Middle East and Africa is one of the fastest growing regions in the world for its cloud computing business. Microsoft recently announced it will establish cloud data centers in South Africa by 2018, which will cater to its cloud customers across the Middle East.
Cloud technology has allowed Microsoft’s enterprise customers large and small to access a variety of computing processes online—from storage to server space and more. That’s eliminated the need to invest in costly IT hardware, opening up easy access to advanced technological capabilities that were previously generally only available to large, deep-pocketed companies.
Clients across the region are using products that run on the cloud. Majid Al Futtaim Ventures uses Microsoft’s tech for its retail operations at the Mall of the Emirates. Others include Saudi Arabian Airlines, Jumeirah Hospitality Group and Kuwait’s Ministry of Finance. Still, Abu-Ltaif must contend with plenty of challenges running Microsoft in the Middle East.
One is cybersecurity—which has a poor reputation in the region due to a spate of high-profile cyberattacks affecting local companies and governments. Abu-Ltaif claims that Microsoft invests $1 billion annually in terms of research and development when it comes to cybersecurity. “We are making sure this is integrated across our products,” he says.
Another challenge is volatile economic conditions. Understandably, that affects companies as they grow and diversify—and may hinder them from adopting new technologies. Regulations are another issue, forcing Microsoft to engage frequently with governments.
Then there’s competition, particularly in cloud computing, which is creating a dilemma for Microsoft. Several big tech companies have plans to establish cloud data centers in the region, including Oracle later this year and Amazon in 2018.
“Microsoft is yet to set up a local cloud data center in the Middle East,” says Gartner’s Rao. That, he notes, is making enterprises in the GCC reluctant to move their workloads to Microsoft Azure. That’s in part due to unclear data privacy laws, including local cybersecurity laws that can prevent companies and organizations from hosting their data overseas. The lack of a local data center also causes latency issues, since its nearest existing facilities are in Europe or India.
It’s an area Abu-Ltaif has sought to address through the planned data centers in South Africa, but he admits the company is still working on plans to develop its cloud services further in the region.
It helps that the new regional head is no stranger to adversity. Abu-Ltaif was nine-years-old when Lebanon’s civil war broke out in 1975. Growing up amidst the fighting was an experience that shaped who he is today. “The war in Lebanon taught me tolerance, survival skills and resilience,” says Abu-Ltaif. “I had near-death experiences, I lost loved ones.”
By the time he was 18 he harbored a passion for computer programming, having been inspired by his older brother who worked in the tech industry. He enrolled to study computer science at the American University of Beirut in 1985. He was among the first to graduate from the university’s computer science program, earning his degree in 1989.
Despite his aspiration to become a programmer, Abu-Ltaif soon found himself heading in a different direction. During his studies he began to see the potential IT technology could offer businesses and people. “I found myself in the business of sales, rather than being a techie writing code.” Upon graduating he joined the IT company NCR as a regional sales representative. He would work there for more than a decade, and witnessed the company being acquired by AT&T.
Abu-Ltaif remembers that his technical training helped him immensely. It gave him a unique insight into the technology he was selling and made him stand out at NCR. He advanced quickly in the company, becoming the general manager responsible for Bahrain at age 29.
People noticed his rise. Microsoft tried to headhunt him in 1998. It didn’t work out, he says, without elaborating. But Microsoft tried again not long after, and again in 2004. That time Abu-Ltaif took the bait.
Bill Gates had recently stepped down as CEO and been replaced by Steve Ballmer. Those years saw Microsoft explore a variety of new hardware products. Some, like the gaming console Xbox, fared reasonably well. Others, like the portable music player Zune, did not. Crucially, those years also marked the beginning of the shift from PCs to smartphones—a trend Microsoft underestimated.
However, it was an era of expansion for Microsoft in the Gulf. It was well-established in Dubai and Kuwait by the time he came aboard, recalls Abu-Ltaif, but wanted to establish operations in Bahrain and Qatar.
Abu-Ltaif says the company wasn’t focused on pushing specific products in the region at that time; instead they were more intent on expanding their presence and making inroads with governments, ministries of education and local IT partners. “That era also witnessed the start of a stronger presence by our consulting and support services in the region, driving implementations in banking and oil and gas,” says Abu-Ltaif.
In 2010, he was appointed to manage the entire Gulf. Over the next six years he turned the Gulf into Microsoft’s largest subsidiary in the Middle East and Africa. Dubai became the regional headquarters. More importantly, Abu-Ltaif says the Gulf became a launch pad for Microsoft’s products globally. “We’ve done a few things that were here first,” he says. So far, the Gulf has served as a testing ground for Microsoft in areas such as education, aviation and utilities—an example being DEWA’s use of HoloLens.
As Microsoft’s regional head, Abu-Ltaif brings a hands-on style to the role. He estimates he spends 65% of his time away from his office in Dubai, meeting with Microsoft’s customers, IT partners and team members around the region. “I love to work with people. I’m not an office guy at all,” he says. “I enjoy a lot being on the front-lines. I get a lot of insight from that.”
Microsoft’s efforts to build a foundation for digital transformation in the region go beyond just infrastructure investments. The data centers are just the beginning. “It’s my mandate to continue playing that ambassadorial role and ensure that we bring more of the investments of Microsoft,” says Abu-Ltaif. Areas that he is keen to address include education, support for startups and SMEs, and cultivating the company’s network of partners.
The education focus stems from the region’s large youth population. “It’s an amazing opportunity. They [the youth] are so attached to what technology can offer,” says Abu-Ltaif. Curriculum, he says, needs to prepare students for the workplace of the future—which Microsoft hopes will be powered by its technologies. The company is exploring ways to integrate its products in regional education systems, leading it to team up with the U.A.E.’s Ministry of Education on its Smart Learning Program.
He also sees a need to assist SMEs and startups, which can create future business for the company. “It’s very important that the SMEs are not left behind,” says Abu-Ltaif. The Middle East has long been a consumer of IT developed elsewhere, but Abu-Ltaif thinks that can change. With proper resources and access to better technology, regional SMEs and startups can potentially create tech solutions with global appeal. To that end, Microsoft has created programs like BizSpark to support tech startups and made available $60 million of cloud computing to local startups at no charge.
Thea Myhrvold, founder of Dubai-based online education startup TeachMeNow, joined BizSpark when she wanted to grow her business globally. “With BizSpark, it lets you grow your business on the cloud and have access to the latest technology with a very low cost,” she says. After taking part in BizSpark, Myhrvold can now count Microsoft as a client too. Through TeachMeNow, Microsoft’s customers can book live sessions with Microsoft experts to learn to use Azure and other products. “The BizSpark program has solidified our relationship to Microsoft on different levels and we are excited to work with them,” says Myhrvold.
Beyond SMEs and startups, another focus area for Abu-Ltaif is tending to Microsoft’s network of partners in the region. Having local partners has been critical to Microsoft’s success; as it evolves, Abu-Ltaif doesn’t want to leave those assets behind. “We have 400,000 IT professionals who work in our partner ecosystem,” he says. “I just invite you to think about the families they support, the wealth generated as a result of this.”
Looking to the future, Abu-Ltaif expects artificial intelligence to rise. Already, Microsoft uses A.I. in many of its products and services—such as the machine translation features built into Skype, which supports real-time translation for 11 languages, including Arabic. Or there’s the recently announced Project Brainwave, a new A.I. platform designed to help Microsoft’s cloud data centers process live data streams by using deep learning applications—a cutting-edge innovation that Google is exploring too.
With a potent mixture of opportunities and challenges, there’s seemingly never a dull moment for Abu-Ltaif. “The company is going through a fantastic phase of transformation.” Microsoft is on the move.