Tuesday, August 24

Information De-Evolution III - computers

Computers Intro

An IBM Model 1440 computer was installed at the Ethiopian Electric Light and Power Authority in the early 1960s. Purchase price was about $90,000 ($523235 in 2003) while the rental rate was about $1,500 ($8720 in 2003). Source.

This 2002 article from The Independent Magazine on Information and Communications Technology (ICT) provides an interesting look at the history of telecommunications in Ethiopia.

The "Influencing factors of ICT Development in Ethiopia", particularly computer development are discussed in the following interview with Ato Solomon Berhanu, a veteran ICT professional.
Information and Communication Technology (ICT) has made an impressive progress in Ethiopia since its introduction in the early 1960's with unit-record equipment. Mainframe computers came into the picture in the mid 60's when the then Imperial Ethiopian Highway Authority, the Ethiopian Airlines, the Telecommunications Authority and the Ethiopian Electric Light and Power Authority bought and/or rented the IBM mainframe computers.

These mainframe computers did little beyond computing a couple of vital information like payroll, billing and accounting, because, in all the user organizations no one was aware of their vast computing potentials. A case in mind was the procurement of a cash register in one government organization to process accounting work, that I witnessed, despite the limited workload the mainframe had computing just a payroll application. No one was sure about the capability of the big computer to compute accounting.

In most organizations, procuring expensive ICT equipment was more of prestige rather than appreciation of its use. Thus, it was no wonder to acquire a Birr 500,000.00 to Birr One million worth of mainframe for inadequate usage.

When it comes to utilization, the Ethiopian figure was not averaging beyond 20%.

The mid 70s showed us the mini-computers that were significantly smaller than the mainframes, yet more flexible, powerful and cheaper in price. The monopoly of the Ethiopian market by IBM Corporation dwindled; and competing companies like Burroughs Machines (Unisys), NCR Corporation, Hewlett Packard (HP) started to penetrate into the Ethiopian Market.

NCR had an excellent strategy in the mid 70s to penetrate the little tapped computer market of Ethiopia. They believed that the decision makers, who are in the top and middle management, were the stumbling block in almost all the organizations because of their illiteracy in computers. Thus, free orientation courses were offered to these groups. Not only did they then advocated the procurement of mini computers for their respective organizations, but they were pro-NCR in their selection of equipment and training in programming languages was a reason for the success of NCR.

Personal Computers (PC) came into the market starting from the mid 80s. It was difficult to convince managers of different organizations to replace their typewriters with PCs. Electric typewriters cost about Birr 15,000.00 while the multi-function PCs with long-carriage dot-matrix printers were costing about the same price. A series of training and programmes continued for the next ten years until the new market economic policy made its impact on ICT products.

Now, PCs are everywhere, thanks to the training centers and sales outlets that mushroomed in town. Over one hundred training centers are registered so far. The ICT sales outlets are also within reach for every interested body. Internet cafes were springing up before the government started its discouraging action.

Other African countries, who were way behind us a couple of decades ago, have now plenty of Internet Service Providers (ISP) while our Telecommunications Agency, with its monopolistic attitude, is tightening its control instead of expressing leniency.

Recent newsbreak about China closing 17,000 of the Internet cafes came as a real surprise to me. 17,000? Out of how many? Does the number of Internet cafes reach 17 in Ethiopia? I just wonder.
There is more on the history of Ethio-computing and IT development in this detailed 1994 work Information technology in selected countries which has a detailed historical section titled Information technology in Ethiopia.

The most striking aspect of the IT history the total domination by government of all aspects of computer use. For example, the Ethiopian Science and Technology Commission (ESTC) was established by a 1975 proclamation
to provide the requisite political will and authority for the coordination and promotion of science and technology, its application to development, and overall evaluation of results achieved in the field ...

The commission is the apex decision-making and coordinating body for science and technology (S&T) in the nation. Its aim is to create conditions conducive to the development of the organic growth of a viable scientific and technological system.

One of the policy statements relevant to the theme of this report is the following: "Establishment of a system for the evaluation and monitoring of imported technologies and identification of areas where indigenous technologies can be developed." Among the actions taken by the commission to make such systems viable is the creation of institutions for S&T services to support the development of key sectors in the economy.
Hearing this example of the native language of burdensome bureacrats everywhere it is not difficult to note that 1975 was year one for the establishment of the Soviet style Ethiopian state. In that spirit of control the proclamation hindered the development of IT for decades to come compared to what an open system could have achieved.

Remember that by the time their Empire fell in 1991 the heirs of Lenin could barely produce a PC worthy of the name even with complete sets of plans stolen from the West. Imported PCs and decent mainframes that the military did not grab up were under the strict control of the security services and were largely misused so that they did little to help the collapsing Soviet economy.

Of course, such a flawed system nearly crippled Ethiopian IT development at birth even though IT business relations were with the West. The early pioneers such as Ato Solomon Berhanu (interviewed above) deserve much credit as do the dedicated professionals at the Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation who made the best of a bad system that rejected private initiative.

More on the internet in Information De-Evolution IV.

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