A Question of Access
But access remains the biggest single challenge facing people in the region, people from Microsoft and the African Development Bank told me: access to not just the technologies themselves, but also the issue of the affordability of the hardware and software, and the knowledge to use these tools. Thats where Microsofts Unlimited Potential initiative comes in, which is about helping individuals and communities around the world globe achieve their goals through access to relevant and affordable technologies, thereby enabling new avenues of social and economic opportunity, particularly for the estimated 5 billion people that have yet to realize the benefits of technology.The suite will be available in the second half of 2007 for a cost of $3 each to qualifying governments in eligible countries that buy and supply Windows PCs directly to primary and secondary students for their personal use at home and for school work. For Orlando Ayala, the senior vice president of Microsofts new Emerging Segments Market Development Group, the goal is enabling sustained social and economic opportunity for 5 billion people. "This is an issue of sustainability. Thats why, when people talk about Linux, I dont get emotional. This is about creating sustainable, long-term systems that allow you to propel society forward. This is about building for the long term and empowering the community," he has told me. Microsoft also cant control what software and systems these new users will choose over time, he says, noting that the ultimate outcomes will speak to the effectiveness of the program. Asked why a company like Microsoft is getting involved in what could be seen as a large-scale humanitarian or charitable effort and not a business investment, Ayala said there is a strong business case to be made for such moves. "Despite the skepticism that exists, I believe we have to try," he says. But it is a tough challenge, as Microsoft faces the risk that this effort will not be perceived as truly generous but rather more as a Trojan horse, of trying to get a foot in the door so it can exploit these markets later, Roger Kay, the president of research group Endpoint Technologies Associates, told me at the time of the announcement. "Microsoft is simply taking a page from Gates and his foundation and is now "using some of that extraordinary windfall [from its Windows-Office franchise] to buy back the reputation. Its generosity, but generosity with a purpose. Its generosity, but its also good business," he said. If what I saw in Burkina Faso is anything to go by, Microsoft and its potential partners have their work cut out for them. Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, views and analysis on servers, switches and networking protocols for the enterprise and small businesses.
In April, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates announced new products and programs under the banner of the Unlimited Potential initiative. A critical component of the initiative is the Microsoft Student Innovation Suite, a software package that includes Windows XP Starter Edition, Microsoft Office Home and Student 2007, Microsoft Math 3.0, Learning Essentials 2.0 for Microsoft Office, and Windows Live Mail desktop.