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.
Next Page: Taking a page from the Gates Foundation.
But the primary risk Microsoft faces is 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 more later, he said.
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.
But, to Ayala, Microsoft has 35 years of experience providing solutions to communities and is now looking to expand this even further by drawing in its 700,000 existing global partners, as well as forming new partnerships with local NGOs, multilateral agencies, development agencies and local communities.
“This initiative also involves the creation of products uniquely suited for these communities, and Microsoft is already working hard on making technology more pervasive through pay-as-you go and subscription-type models,” he said.
Its also time for the industry to come together and do the right thing in ensuring that those communities around the world that cant buy computers or even afford the software for $3 are taken care of, Ayala said.
This is something Microsoft will be pushing going forward, he said, as the empowerment of these communities cannot be done by the company alone.
Asked if Microsoft plans to involve its partners in this initiative, Ayala said, “Absolutely. I have Intel and AMD and many of the local partners really dying to get involved as those people also live in local communities and want them to do well.
“They are really trying to find a framework to fit into, and what unlimited potential provides, frankly, is a framework that shows what we are betting on: transforming education to lead to jobs and opportunities,” he said.
Ayala will also throw down the gauntlet to summit attendees in his speech, telling them that, so as not to leave their citizens behind, they need to get involved and make the required investments in infrastructure, without which initiatives like this would not succeed.
“It is not about charity, but about enabling a new generation of people to be able to contribute to their communities and culture. Some 40 percent of the economy in Asia appears to be informal,” Ayala said.
Ayala is also working on an initiative that will take some of the 70 million computers that are retired globally every year and refurbish and redistribute them in developing countries in Africa.
Education is a critical component of all this, he said, pointing to the Imagine Cup, an annual technology competition that provides an outlet for students to explore technological and innovative interests outside the classroom.
More than 65,000 students from 100 countries competed last year in the event, which lets them compare ideas, gain practical experience and create imaginative solutions that apply to the real world. Registrations are still being accepted for the 2007 competition, with more than 100,000 students signed up so far, he said.
Gates will also announce on April 19 plans to extend its resource commitment to the Microsoft Innovation Centers over the next two years, and its intent to open and support 200 centers in an additional 25 countries by 2009.
The current network of 110 centers serves 100 communities in 60 nations by providing local software communities with a set of programs and services to expand work force skills, create jobs, strengthen innovation and improve competitiveness.
Microsoft also plans five new Partnerships for Technology Access programs in Argentina, Botswana, Chile, China and Egypt.
The programs bring together governments, technology companies, banks and nongovernmental organizations to help increase access to PCs and use technology to build economic and social opportunity in developing economies and other underserved parts of the world. There are now 50 such programs in various stages worldwide.
Microsoft is also creating an employability portal that will be launched in India by the end of 2007. It will help the countrys nearly 400,000 engineering students who graduate each year improve their technology, business and communication skills through online training and verification. The project could be broadened to more regions over time.
Gates will also announce an alliance with the Asian Development Bank that will see them work together to enhance the competitiveness and sustainable economic development of the Asia-Pacific region.