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Opportunities knocking for local developers

NAIROBI, Kenya, May 25 – In South Africa, cellular companies MTN and Vodacom went head to head claiming exclusive rights to distribute Android HTC phones. Both companies claimed that the phone offers enticing opportunities for mobile applications developers.

Android is an open source operating system supported by Google and allows local developers to design solutions for local use.

Back in Kenya, Nokia introduced its Ovi online store; a market place for mobile applications. The Ovi store has been described as the competitor to Apple store, though Ovi comes with a local twist; allowing developers to receive payments via M-Pesa and to consult Nokia offices in case they have questions.

If you compare South Africa to Kenya, you can almost guess that the South African developers will have conquered greater ground by the end of the year. Indeed, most seasoned techies run from Kenya and set base in South Africa, claiming that there are more software companies in SA paying good money and opportunities for career progression.

It is no wonder that most global brands like HTC choose South Africa as their first country in launching their software products.

But why? Is it that South Africa has better software developers than Kenya? Is it that the local companies in SA support developers more than Kenya does? Is it that there are no international opportunities to expose local developers to international standards?

It is not that Kenya developers have not been exposed to international competition; Facebook had its developer’s garage, Research in Motion (blackberry) held its competition, Microsoft has its Imagine Cup, Nokia has the Calling All Innovators Global competition but the competition has attracted minimal applications from local developers.

"There is a lot of mistrust and fear that applications will be stolen; we have been organising the mobile boot camp at Strathmore University every year; people present very good mobile applications but they do not enter global competitions," said Jessica Colaco, the coordinator of the mobile boot camp.

Ms Colaco’s sentiments go to the root of why South African developers beat Kenya. Protection of intellectual property is much more advanced in South Africa than Kenya. I have participated in a mailinglist where a local developer claimed that his application code had been "stolen" by a company associated by one of the top leaders in the ICT sector. The developer had gone to the company to sell his idea and was asked to make a presentation; instead of hiring him, the company stole his code and improved on it.

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The general consensus among the techies was that there was nothing the guy could do to claim his property or seek compensation. Why? Because the Trademark Act does not recognise IT innovations.

There is no doubt that local techies develop very innovative applications; but how can they share them with prospective investors without fearing that their hard work would be stolen?

Dorothy Ooko, Nokia’s Communication manager admitted that patenting and trademark of digital material is still a challenge in Kenya, adding that Nokia is willing to work with the Kenya police and the Kenya Bureau of Standards to raise awareness on digital content and trademarks.

At the same time, the Ovi store allows developers to protect their material under the Digital Rights Management which protects the applications against potential abuse and infringement. If one uploads the application, it means no one else can upload the same or if one had shared the application free on one handset, it can not be transfered to another handset in case of change of phones.

According to Ms Colaco, developers often cite lack of time, bandwidth constraints and fear of intellectual property theft as part of the reason they do not participate in software development exercises.

"With the infrastructure projects nearing completion, cost of bandwidth will drastically reduce and users will be downloading relevant applications; the best thing is for developers to address local needs," said Ms Ooko.

The Ovi store is expected to start accepting applications next month. Developers will get 70 percent of the revenue and can track the number of downloads through the Ovi website.

Imagine what success a developer would achieve if they developed an application that is relevant to one million mobile phone users in the country. It may be an application that monitors traffic or alerts matatu drivers and touts about the presence of traffic police officers in a certain route. If the application is downloaded at a cost of 50 shillings per download, it means the developer gets a substantial amount depending on how popular the application is.

You can blow the imagination if the application is on the Nokia platform and is found relevant and downloaded by millions across the world. The opportunities are limitless.

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