In Beijing last week, I overheard some of my colleagues planning for an event this week that included Bill Gates, Microsoft VP Will Poole, and many others. That event took place today, and it included an announcement of an ambitious goal: to create 1 billion new computer users by 2015. Here's a link to the video of Bill Gates's announcement of this goal.
The 2015 date isn't arbitrary. That's the target year for the UN's Millenium Development Goals, which are about improving the quality of life for the world's poorest people. One of the eight goals of that program is to "develop a global partnership for development," and Microsoft's plan for creating new users supports that goal directly, by enabling people in poor areas to learn valuable skills on the same software that is used in most large businesses and other organizations worldwide. There are many details involved, but the heart of the plan is a very simple concept: sell a bundled copy of Office, Windows, Live Mail Desktop and a few other things (collectively called the "Student Innovation Suite") to governments in poor areas for $3 each.
This brings appropriate pricing to millions of people who in the past couldn't afford the software they wanted to use; it's hard to buy software at US/European prices when you're in an area where the average wage is a few dollars a day. (The collage to the right shows some photos I've taken in my travels in such areas in recent years.)
Now those people can use registered, supported "legal" copies of the same software that is widely used in business and government. The software will be sold to governments, for use by students, so the students themselves will pay nothing at all.
Microsoft isn't going to make much money on this venture, of course. I don't know the details of the pricing and distribution model, but $3 per copy sounds like it probably covers the basic cost of duplication and not much more.
But Microsoft has long had a goal of "a computer on every desk and in every home," and this is just a further step toward that goal. Some in the United States have said in recent years that that goal was near fulfillment, but that's a very local view. If you take a high-level look at the world, there is still much to be done to bring computing power to most people, and this program is a great step forward toward that goal.
For more information, see these links:
eWeek (Joe Wilcox): What Is Microsoft's Unlimited Potential?
Microsoft Unlimited Potential home page
Microsoft Unlimited Potential - Community Technology Skills Program
Microsoft Student Innovation Suite
United Nations: Millenium Development Goals