$3 software suite aims to bridge digital divide

Building on existing efforts to bridge the digital divide worldwide, software giant Microsoft Corp. is offering a $3 software package to governments that subsidize student computers used at home and at school.

Though the United States is eligible to participate in the program, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education (ED) said the decision to subsidize student computers and enroll in the program is best left to individual states.

The program aims to provide governments around the world with inexpensive versions of Microsoft’s Windows XP operating system and other educational programs for students to use on laptops or other mobile computers they can use both at home and at school. It’s another progression in the growing movement toward one-to-one computing worldwide.

The new software package, called Microsoft Student Innovation Suite, is part of an expansion of Microsoft’s Unlimited Potential and Partners in Learning programs. The suite consists of Microsoft’s Windows XP Starter Edition, Microsoft Office Home and Student 2007, Microsoft Math 3.0, Learning Essentials 2.0, and Windows Live Mail desktop.

Governments that subsidize a certain percentage of the cost of computers for primary and secondary students might be eligible to purchase the suite for $3 per license, provided they have subsidized at least 10,000 PCs for students’ personal use. Because of this requirement, the minimum number of copies that can be purchased under the program is 10,000 licenses.

Microsoft has structured its program so that all nations declared as being lower- or middle-income countries by the World Bank’s gross national income (GNI) index are eligible automatically. Countries that fall into the high-income bracket under the GNI index are eligible to purchase the $3 Student Innovation Suite only if Microsoft currently has a Partners in Learning agreement in place with them; the United States is one such country.

“I think if you look at where we’ve gone with our Partners in Learning efforts and our long-term vision for education, empowering students to have access to technology is right in line with that,” says Lauren Woodman, worldwide director of Microsoft’s Partners in Learning program. “This is just an extension of the work we’ve done to date with Partners in Learning and reaching out to the student community to make sure that, where possible, we can work with governments to facilitate access to technology.”

Though ED is aware of the initiative, it believes the decision to participate should be left to each state, a department spokesman said.

“Obviously, there are states that might want to do these types of programs,” says Woodman. “As those areas of interest pop up, we’ll evaluate those and see who we can work with and the best way to do that.”

To qualify, governments must purchase computers meant for students’ personal use, no matter who the manufacturer is. As of now, Microsoft is looking to provide the suite only to countries purchasing new computers instead of refurbished or recycled ones. That could rule out countries such as New Zealand, whose ambitious and ground-breaking Computers in Homes project aims to supply all New Zealand families who are socially and economically disadvantaged with a refurbished computer, an internet connection, relevant training, and technical support.

“We want to make sure the PCs that students are getting are capable of running the software that’s included in the Student Innovation Suite,” says Woodman. “We’re very flexible in … saying as long as you can run the software that’s included in the Innovation Suite, then that’s something we can work with.”

Microsoft has not yet decided on a method of distributing the software, as the logistics of contacts and distribution vary country by country. According to Woodman, Microsoft will use the next few months leading up to the release of the suite to different nations to work out these details on a country-by-country basis.

In the days since the announcement was made April 19, a number of governments reportedly have contacted Microsoft and expressed interest in being a part of the initiative. Microsoft is working on getting as much information as possible to these governments to help them evaluate whether or not the suite is appropriate for them.

With the recent announcement by One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) founder Nicholas Negroponte that each of the initiative’s low-cost laptops will cost $175 and be capable of running Windows as well as the Linux operating system, Microsoft’s new initiative could have a huge effect in getting the company’s operating system into the hands of students in developing countries.

“I think governments around the world are very interested in making sure that students have access to technologies and helping them get ready to be a part of the global workforce,” said Woodman. “Those are common goals of just about every government around the world. I think this helps lower some of the barriers of putting those types of programs in place and reaching those objectives.”

She added: “This is part of what we’re trying to do in working with governments to help get kids ready for the 21st century and … make sure they have access to technology and skills they need in order to be successful. If [the program] helps governments reach those goals, then it’s a home run for everyone involved.”

In another expansion of its Unlimited Potential program, Microsoft has pledged to open 90 new “innovation centers” in countries around the world. The Redmond, Wash.-based company already has opened 110 of the centers, which offer classes and access to technology for academics, local startup software companies, and other groups.

In addition, the company said it designed a web site to help graduating engineering students in India get additional training and find jobs, a model it might extend in other countries if successful. The site reportedly will go online by the end of the year.


Microsoft Unlimited Potential

Microsoft Partners in Learning

One Laptop Per Child

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