Staying Ahead In The Software Industry

If Singapore wants to stay ahead in the IT realm, more has to be done.

Neighboring country Taiwan is already renowned as a hardware powerhouse, being home to giants such as Acer and TSMC while Banglalore, India, has been hailed as the software powerhouse.

Although Singapore has had the advantage of being a popular manufacturing base for many high-tech companies, its position now is rivaled by China, India and most recently Vietnam alike.

Tech giants such as Cisco, IBM, Nortel Networks and Sony have already outsource software development projects to Vietnam – either directly or through third-party developers with an onshore presence in the United States and Europe. It has been estimated that about 30 software development companies are currently operating in Vietnam.

Industry observers have also claimed that developing software in Vietnam is 90 percent cheaper than in the United States, and between one-third and one-seventh of the cost of developing in India. And IT companies in Vietnam retain key staff and keep project teams together for months at a time although there are still issues to be resolved in the country as a whole, such as limited and expensive bandwidth with a 128k leased line costing as much as US$2,000 a month.

But its government will not let this be a setback and will continue investing in the IT arena. In Ho Chi Min City for instance, stands Vietnam’s most modern software park, the Quang Trang Software City, opened in March last year. When this park is fully completed, it will be able to accommodate 10,000 programmers. Its government has also issued a decree to train 50,000 information-technology workers by 2005, when Vietnam’s software industry is expected to contribute US$500 million to the annual gross domestic product.

With all these competition, Singapore has to move beyond mere software production and up the value chain, says Ho Yean Fee, a veteran in the software R&D area and the director of Asia Development Center at Sybase Singapore.

She continued: “The ones who are making the money are not those who are producing the software but those who are controlling the business processes and those who can anticipate what the next technology trend would be and develop products to complement these technologies.”

Recruiting IT talent

While Singapore has a large pool of IT personnel and boost of local talent, Sim Wong Hoo, founder of Creative Technology Ltd – the creator of Sound Blaster and the world’s leading provider of advanced multimedia products and peripherals for personal computers, there are very few notable innovators in the industry.

If you were to ask Ho what is it like for her to recruit personnel who could help her with building products fit for worldwide release, her answer would be “extremely challenging”.

In the development laboratory, Ho’s primary role lies with taking charge of Sybase PowerBuilder products. Just last year, the team in Singapore completed the golden release of PowerBuilder 8 and soon, they will be releasing PowerBuilder 9; where PowerBuilder is an engine that allows professional developers to build mission-critical transactional applications with ease.

“Basically, there is no one in Singapore who can do the kind of job we are doing here. But we have to open up opportunities to those whom we see possess excellent qualities and can excel in this area rather than look for relevant experience. If we were bent on the latter, talent will not be cultivated,” said Ho who learned it the hard way when she first graduated in the early 1980s. She was hoping to get a job in the R&D field in Singapore but there were no opportunities. But her determination to pursue a career in R&D landed her a job with Wang Laboratories in the US.

If it were not for her friends and family in Singapore, and the efforts of ISS (Institute of System Science), a Singapore government funded research institute, in developing the R&D work within the software industry, Singapore would have lost another talent to a foreign land.

Even for India which boosts of more opportunities for creative software personnel than Singapore, it still experiences a huge brain drain, with as many as 100,000 Indian professionals seeking opportunities in the US a year – an estimated resource loss for India of US$2 billion, said Asia Times.

Singapore, therefore, has to place more emphasis on cultivating IT talent and then retaining them in the country. It should be more aggressive than before in encouraging tech companies to set up not just a regional headquarters here, but R&D facilities as well.

In addition, secondary schools in Singapore can also take up a more active role in nurturing students’ interests in R&D work within the IT industry just as it has done with life sciences.

Anticipating future trends

When asked to comment on the debate between Java software programming language and .Net which has since escalated into Sun Microsystems filing a billion dollar antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft, claiming that its business has been damaged by Microsofts abusive monopoly by shipping its Window XP operating system without support for Suns Java software programming language, Ho believes that future solutions from Sybase should support both Java and .Net.

“The issue between Java and .Net will go on for some time. Java has an earlier head start over .Net but .Net being owned by Microsoft will not allow itself to be put at a disadvantage,” said Ho.

The lawsuit is similar to the one filed by AOL sometime back who claimed that Microsoft has unfairly bundled its Internet Explorer with its Windows products against AOL’s Netscape.

Whether or not, .Net will prevail over Java r vice versa, Ho believes that no one product is ‘King’ over the others as each has their strengths and weaknesses.

In her opinion, coming up with innovative products alone are not enough. Products have to address current problems, meet future needs and should be able to work well in a heterogeneous environment.

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