Microsoft has to put up with a certain level of animosity due its position at the head of the food chain. It's an obvious target and suffers some unfair attacks as a result. It's tough at the top. Circumspection might seem to be the order of the day.
Unfortunately circumspect is not a word that sits easily on Microsoft's belligerent chief executive Steve Ballmer. Example: you'd hope a company that has been attacked countless times about its often severe licensing policies would tread carefully around the issue of software piracy -- a problem that one might suspect had some links to the cost of software.
Not in Ballmer's world. Under his skies, the problem is not with Microsoft's draconian pricing policy but with hardware vendors. Speaking at an industry conference in Florida on Wednesday the Microsoft chief decided that what will encourage developing countries to turn their back on piracy are cheaper PCs. "There has to be…a $100 computer to go down-market in some of these countries. We have to engineer [PCs] to be lighter and cheaper."
Once again with the grace of a lithe gymnast rather than a rotund middle-aged executive, Ballmer has managed to skip around the big, fat elephant squatting in front of his nose and find another excuse for why the inhabitants of poorer countries are opting not to pay his company's licence fees.
Microsoft has made some stabs towards shifting the licensing pachyderm recently but only after considerable external pressure. A cut-down, cheaper version of Windows XP, the so-called Starter Edition, is now available in Russia, India, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia -- all hotbeds of pirated software. But crucially, Starter Edition is only bundled with entry-level PCs and not as a standalone product -- which isn't much good for anyone with a functional existing machine with no plans or resources to upgrade their hardware. What are their options, Steve?
Ballmer's missed another point. Anyone can build a $100 machine right now, just not one that will run Windows. Linux, however, can be shoehorned into anything. Its cost of licensing means that you can spend every last cent on hardware, and $100 these days buys you bits just as good as $4,000 spent 20 years ago when the PC first broke cover.
So if Microsoft is serious about encouraging computing in the developing world -- and we have no reason to believe otherwise -- it has to come up with more convincing arguments than this. It has to support the most cost-effective way of bootstrapping IT on the other side of the digital divide, and that means active promotion of free and open-source software. It can cash in when the billions of people it thus helps become richer -- and able to move up to the more expensive, (but oh so superior, right, Steve?) Windows alternative.