By Atom Markarian
The world’s leading computer software manufacturer, Microsoft, has opened an office in Yerevan in what officials described on Friday as a further boost to Armenia’s growing information technology (IT) sector.
The head of the Armenian Enterprise Incubator Foundation (EIF), a World Bank-funded agency promoting the sector’s development, refuted reports that a Microsoft representation that opened its doors in Baku this week is the first in the South Caucasus.
“They initially intended to open a single regional office in Armenia,” Bagrat Yengibarian told a news conference. “But because of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict they decided to open an office in Azerbaijan as well.”
“Microsoft registered its [Armenia] branch one month ago. The news wasn’t announced until now because they chose their [chief local] representative only last week,” he said.
According to Yengibarian, as well as promoting its world-famous software packages in the local market, the U.S. computer giant will also be “implementing projects in the areas of education and electronic management.” “They will come up with a package of proposals for those fields,” he said. “Besides, it has been tentatively agreed that they will participate in legislative and other initiatives aimed at improving the business environment for the development of information technology in Armenia.”
Armenia’s IT industry employs thousands of well-paid specialists and is seen as the most advanced in the region, having expanded substantially over the past decade. Foreign and mostly U.S. companies involved in software development and other IT-related activities have been the main driving force behind the growth.
Microsoft’s decision to set up shop in Armenia may have well been inspired by major Western firms like Synopsis and Lycos Europe that have moved a large part of their production operations there in recent years. The existence of relatively cheap and skilled workforce in a country that was once dubbed the Silicon Valley of the Soviet Union has been the principal factor behind the foreign investments.
However, Yengibarian and other IT experts have repeatedly warned that the sector’s further growth could stall unless the Armenian government embarks on a sweeping overhaul of its system of higher education. They say the number and especially the professional level of young people graduating from the IT programs of local universities still leaves much to be desired.
The government, meanwhile, announced on Thursday the impending launch of an IT “technopark” in Armenia’s second city of Gyumri that will seek to facilitate the emergence of small and medium-sized hi-tech companies in the area. Officials said they will receive office space and business counseling free of charge but will not enjoy any tax privileges.
A similar but privately owned IT incubator, called Viasphere Technopark, has already successfully operated in Yerevan for nearly five years. It currently hosts 14 local and foreign IT firms employing hundreds of people. “There is quite a development going on here right now,” Viasphere’s deputy director, Khachatur Khachikian, told RFE/RL. “Armenia’s largest IT firm, Synopsis, is preparing to move here soon.”