Gates launches developing world tech initiative

BEIJING -- Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates launched an initiative here Thursday aimed at bridging the digital divide between technologically advanced and developing countries.

The initiative, an expansion of Microsoft's "Unlimited Potential" strategy, involves offering governments a $3 software package called the Student Innovation Suite. It 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 by the end of this year to qualifying governments that are working to supply PCs to students in order to promote technology skills. In 2008, Microsoft will extend its availability to all countries with economies defined as low- or middle-income by the The World Bank.

"In each country, it is tailored to the interests of the government and citizens, but it's about innovation, it's about integration, and it's about creating jobs in those regions," Gates said, speaking at the conclusion of the two-day Microsoft Government Leaders Forum Asia in Beijing.

Gates emphasized the role of technology in education and said the software would be a first step towards offering children in the developing world greater access to computing. He referred to "my favorite Windows product, the Windows tablet" and said that tablet PCs could eventually replace paper in schools.

"Over time, students won't need to have textbooks. The cost of [the tablet] will be less than buying textbooks, and yet the experience of using it is dramatically superior than what you would have had with a paper-based experience," Gates said.

While Gates has always been a proponent of using technology to solve social, economic and health problems worldwide, this latest move is not purely altruistic, one industry analyst said.

"You'll find that Microsoft would be fairly open if pushed, [and] that they don't go into a market for philanthropic reasons," said Clive Longbottom, founder of Quocirca, a technology research firm in London.

Microsoft has to find more creative ways to distribute its software in emerging markets, where open-source software and Linux have a foothold, he said. Partnering with local governments and global organizations to reach students and developers is a good way to do that, he said.

Microsoft's Windows-based approached differs from other developing-world computing initiatives such as the One Laptop Per Child Project (OLPC), which makes use of an open-source Linux operating system, combined with an Advanced Micro Devices Inc. microprocessor and powered by a hand crank. OLPC has targeted a price for its laptop at $100 per unit by 2008, although Libya, Nigeria, Egypt, Rwanda and Ethiopia ordered units priced at $150 earlier this year.

Libya has committed to providing 1.2 million laptops within a year, and Rwanda will offer 2 million laptops to schoolchildren within five years, according to the OLPC.

The OLPC effort has been led by Nicholas Negroponte, the co-founder of the MIT Media Lab.

Technology's role in improving education is already established, according to Gates. He referred to a distance-learning experiment in which the results of a class that experienced live instruction were compared to those of a remote education class. The latter received the lecture on DVD and stopped the presentation every 15 minutes. The remote group could stop and discuss things wherever they wanted. Because it was start and stop, "that was the group that did the best," Gates said.

Microsoft and others needed to begin reaching out to the developing world through existing, lower-cost technologies such as cell phones and television to provide basic computing and educational opportunities, according to Gates.

Elizabeth Montalbano in New York contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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