If you have been up-to-date about the local (and regional) tech scene news, the name Leila Serhan should ring a bell. Serhan, who was previously the General Manager of Microsoft Lebanon and Emerging Markets, was promoted to the role of Regional General Manager for North Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean & Pakistan (NEPA region). T3’s contributing editor Simon Khoury had the opportunity to pick her brains on the challenges and opportunities she will be tackling at the helm of Microsoft’s regional efforts, as well as Cloud computing, Windows Threshold, and more..
Simon – Can you tell us a bit more about yourself and your work at Microsoft?
Leila – Sure. I’ve been with Microsoft for 12 years, mainly based in Lebanon; but my work involved the entire the region. I was recently appointed as general manager for North Africa, Eastern Mediterranean and Pakistan… Which means I am currently responsible for 12 countries of which we have offices in seven.
It is definitely an emerging market, but with emerging markets comes growth and great opportunities. It is a region brimming with talent and innovation. Unleashing this innovation is one of our biggest priorities, and one of our biggest opportunities as well… However, it is also one of our biggest challenges today.
S – Speaking of challenges, what are the ones that you inherited at Microsoft, and the ones that you took upon yourself to tackle?
L – Obviously, this is a region in turmoil. So working in it is by itself a sizeable challenge. But because this is a region where new technologies have not been fully adopted yet, it presents a big opportunity for us.
Today, many of the countries at hand are just starting to adopt the Cloud. So one of the priorities that we have is to accelerate the shift of their IT ecosystem into the Cloud, whether we’re talking about students, startups, IT ecosystems of more established companies in our partner network, corporate customers etc. Moreover, many of the Cloud offerings we have in place today target the consumer at home; therefore this is our biggest priority.
Obviously, with the Cloud comes a multitude of devices that can be used to access it. We are in a mobile-first, cloud-first era. All of the connected devices we own need the Cloud to bring services to them, so that everything comes together. Our promise is to empower all individuals, wherever they are, to do more, to boost their productivity. But we also want to do more for our developers and IT professionals by providing them with an open platform to deliver services to consumers or corporate customers.
S – So what is your plan to drive the adoption of the Cloud on both consumer and corporate levels ?
L – Well, we work diligently with our partners to get closer to the consumer. Many of our partners are major retailers in the region, and we are working closely with them to drive device adoption. But with [Windows] devices we also want to drive the cloud.
Microsoft has many offerings for the consumer, for instance Office 365. However, we don’t go out telling consumers “buy Office 365”. We ask them to subscribe to a Cloud service that is going to provide them with online storage, for their pictures for example, with Microsoft OneDrive. Right now, we’re offering unlimited storage capacity for Consumers on OneDrive. We also have many offerings that are free. So it’s all about making sure the consumer is presented with the right offer wherever he is, and that he has the best device to run it.
The other promise we give is that we want the consumer to be able use Microsoft’s offerings on any device he wants to use. Whether it’s a Windows device or any other OS, we want the consumer to be able to get things done.
S – But if so, what would be the advantage of choosing a Windows Phone device over the other mobile ecosystems? A better experience?
L – The experience with Microsoft’s services is going to be superior with a Windows device. The other thing is that we are offering a unified experience across all your Windows devices. So today, your Start Screen on your Windows tablet for example would be the same as the one on your Windows 8 laptop / Windows Phone 8 device. It synchronizes automatically, so it’s set-up the way you like, without wasting time configuring it manually.
S – But some say this is an example of the fragmentation issue users are facing; we had inter-OS fragmentation between Android, iOS and Windows, and now there’s intra-OS fragmentation, between Windows, Windows RT and Windows Phone. You’d have traditional Windows programs running on the desktop interface, and the new Windows 8 apps with the Metro interface. Are we nearing the stage where one could theoretically run the same app on all branches of Windows?
L – You are now anticipating what we’re announcing with Windows Threshold. This is definitely one of the major trends we’re going towards.
S- Are you seeing any sorts of major impediment to this “mass migration” to the Cloud? A major obstacle specific to the Middle East?
L- I think you know I am going to say issues with internet connection, especially from a consumer perspective. From a business perspective, we are doing many things on Azure to help overcome some of these issues. On Azure, for example, one of the problematic scenarios for the region is data backup. Instead of relying on tape and the big costs involved therein, we offer a service where companies can perform the backup locally on hard disks, and then ship those to an Azure data center. This way they don’t need to have massive bandwidths, or spend weeks uploading the data. This is one of the things we’re doing for our corporate customers.
For a consumer perspective, obviously it depends a lot on the country’s infrastructure. But from what we’ve seen so far, the user experience has been good. People have been using the Cloud forever, before it was knows as such, with services like Hotmail and Messenger and whatnot. But now our requirements and expectations from the cloud have increased. We used to take pictures only on special occasions, and maybe print some of them and that was it. Nowadays some people take a selfie every other minute [laughter]. So the consumer has changed, and I hope the people responsible for regulations and infrastructure in the region realize the importance of stepping up to the new requirements.
S- I sure hope so as well. Now, when we say cloud, it’s almost always synonymous with mobility and mobile devices. In terms of Windows devices, don’t you feel that, like the Nexus line for Android, Windows needs a “champion” device? One that is very affordable and spec-heavy to drive adoption? Something like the Surface Pro 3, but which is more affordable and available worldwide?
L- I think our OEM partners have a very wide range of devices…
S- … But I feel this is part of the problem. Having so many devices, when you really lack that special one… A couple of months ago, someone asked me to recommend a good windows Ultrabook that can be a good MacBook Pro alternative, and back then, I honestly couldn’t recommend anything…
L- But the MacBook Pro isn’t affordable…
S- Exactly. Currently, there are some very capable Ultrabooks, but there isn’t a “Nexus” tablet of the Windows world. For the Nexus line to have happened and succeeded, Google had to go and work hand-in-hand with OEMs in order to make this special device…
L- I believe that there will never be one device that fits all. A champion device for you is different than a champion device for your parents…
S- But we can always find a common denominator; something that is good for 80% of the population?
L- But you also want to provide people with choice. I don’t think people will want to see Windows only on Surface devices. They want it on many, many devices. We’re giving them that choice in different form factors and cost points. Moreover, we are making big investments in Windows to make sure it runs as perfectly as possible on all kinds of devices.
S- I see. Let’s jump to talk about Governments and the cloud. There is a big opportunity here to make really lasting improvements that benefit the peoples of the Middle East. What is Microsoft doing in this regard? What positive impact can it have via its Cloud offerings?
L- There is currently a lot of buzz surrounding “National Clouds”. With government and citizens’ data, there is always the big question about data sovereignty. And for that, we make sure that we’re one hundred percent compliant with the government requirements, whether it’s a public Cloud or a private one. We respond to people’s concern about security, privacy and access to data. Who accesses what data, to be specific. We also help a lot in advising on how we classify data according to certain standards etc.
We just launched a national, private Cloud in Jordan for example. This is a private Cloud being built by the government. Data is stored locally for people to have their peace of mind. But at the same time it has all the attributes of the Cloud in terms of providing the service in an affordable way, and on-demand. Originally, it will be restricted to government use, but later there’s a plan to open up this data for SMEs and Jordanian startups. We just launched that a couple of months ago, and more and more governments are looking at that experience. To get there, obviously, it took a lot of discussion, legislation, demos and presentations. Nevertheless, I think more governments will get on board.
We ran a very successful National Cloud roundtable in Lebanon with most of the involved decision makers. We received very good responses, and many actions are being taken. In due time, I think we will have some nice announcements regarding that subject in Lebanon.
S- Can you give us some concrete scenarios? How can a National Cloud help the Arab citizen?
L- The average Arab citizen still spends a lot of time having to physically go to government administrations to do paperwork, for things like renewing his passport or getting a driver’s license. Being able to do them on the Cloud and paying fees online securely, we save him time, mitigating traffic and corruption in the process…
S- Let’s end with the consumer side of business and Office 365. Office 365 was a huge step forward for the Office suite. It crammed so many useful utilities and services into one package. Do you think the new Office model well have an impact on piracy?
L- I think people are becoming more and more aware that using pirated products is undesirable. They want to protect themselves, especially that more and more of their personal data is available somewhere in the Cloud. The other factor here is that your work and life experience can be “seamless”. You use the same suite when you’re at work and when you’re home trying to send an email. I think this is important, having the same experience and not having to learn a new “tool”. Take OneDrive for instance. You might have an account for work, and side-by-side your personal OneDrive where you store your personal files. For the user, the experience is seamless, and this is a compelling reason for using Office 365 and the Cloud!
S- And I hope this seamlessness is taken “up to 11” with Windows Threshold! Thank you very much for all the insights! This was a very informative chat!
L- It was my pleasure!