Microsoft is expanding its "Unlimited Potential" initiative to include offering a software package, the Student Innovation Suite, to governments and students in emerging countries across the world at a price of just $3.
Microsoft chairman Bill Gates will use the Government Leaders Forum, which he is hosting in Beijing on April 19, to announce new products and programs under the banner of its existing Unlimited Potential initiative.
The goal of this enhanced initiative is, essentially, to help bring social and economic opportunity through new products and programs to as many as possible of the potential 5 billion people who do not yet use Microsoft products.
There are three primary pillars to this enhanced initiative: education, fostering local innovation, and generating jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities, Orlando Ayala, the senior vice president of Microsofts new Emerging Segments Market Development Group, told eWEEK in an interview from Beijing ahead of the Forum, which is being attended by 300 of the top influencers in Asia.
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.
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.
"Countries categorized by the World Bank as developing are eligible while, in developed countries, communities that are in the lowest 15 percent income bracket also qualify, as long as the government buys and supplies the machine to the student," he said.
Many governments around the world are aggressively subsidizing hardware for students and their teachers. "We are seeing just about every country now taking steps to subsidize or buy computers for underserved communities," Ayala said.
But, to many Microsoft critics, the move is nothing more than an acknowledgement of the impact open-source software has had on its business and a blatant attempt to win the hearts and minds of students in developing countries.
However, for Ayala, the goal is enabling sustained social and economic opportunity for five 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 said.
Microsoft also cant control what software and systems these new users will choose over time, he said, adding 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 said.
Roger Kay, the president of research group Endpoint Technologies Associates, told eWEEK in an e-mail exchange from Beijing that this Microsoft move is both complex and multifaceted.
Aiming first systems at students is an old Apple tactic, Kay said. "The theory is that if you get them young, you can keep them for life. Here, Microsoft is betting that at least some of the kids from developing nations will turn into buyers of more mainstream products later in life. These are long-term bets," he said.
The moves also reflect the competitive pressures Microsoft is under and how it is bowing to the economic realities in the developing world, and its also an acknowledgement that people could turn to free alternatives, Kay said.
"But its also, I think, a genuine belief that computing brings educational and economic benefits to people, and a desire to do good while doing well," Kay said.