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, an Education Department (ED) spokesman said the decision to subsidize student computers and enroll in the program is best left to individual states. Microsoft says states can apply.

The program aims to provide governments around the world with inexpensive versions of Microsoft’s Windows XP operating system and other 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 considered 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.

To qualify, governments must supply computers meant for students’ personal use, regardless of their manufacturer. The computers need not be new, Microsoft said, as long as they can run Windows XP. /p>

That means countries such as New Zealand–whose ambitious and groundbreaking 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–also could be eligible.

“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 Lauren Woodman, worldwide director of Microsoft’s Partners in Learning program. “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 distribution vary from government to government. According to Woodman, Microsoft will use the next few months leading up to the release of the suite to work out these details on a case-by-case basis./p>

With the recent announcement by One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) founder Nicholas Negroponte that each of the initiative’s low-cost laptops will be capable of running Windows as well as the Linux operating system (see story, page 12), Microsoft’s new initiative could have a huge effect in getting the company’s operating system into the hands of students in developing countries. /p>

“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.”/p>