Sure, the digital divide still exists here in the states. It took nearly an act of congress to get my high school moved into the 21st century and we're busily updating our curriculum to make use of the new technology. However, in reality, about 3 quarters of US homes have at least one computer. I have 4 and my wife will probably file for divorce if I get another. The market isn't saturated just yet, but computer makers are certainly working hard to build profit margins in this particular market. The so-called digital divide hasn't exactly been bridged here, but it's certainly a much smaller chasm than it used to be in America.
However, an awful lot of countries have far fewer computers per person than we do. While I have never blogged favorably about the One Laptop Per Child initiative (despite its undeniably good intentions), companies like Microsoft would be remiss if they failed to tap into new, far less saturated, and far more digitally divided markets before these markets become saturated as well. If OLPC has its way, these markets will be saturated by dirt cheap computers running free and open source software.
Americans (and our western neighbors) use Microsoft products because of ingenious marketing and sales strategies that have led a lot of mainstream buyers to be reluctant to buy anything but a Windows-driven computer. We live, for better or worse, in a Windows culture and quite a little bit of business practice has been built around Microsoft software. Imagine a clean slate, though, in which parents' only exposure to computers is a funky little device that their children are given at school and certainly doesn't run Windows Vista or Office 2007. Imagine a culture that doesn't immediately associate computers with Microsoft or Windows and lacks any preconceptions about what a computer should look like or do. You bet Microsoft is worried about OLPC and missing the boat on building these sorts of preconceptions in emerging markets that stand to deliver billions of new users.
Enter the "Microsoft Student Innovation Suite", and their Unlimited Potential Initiative, which received quite a bit of attention last week in the blogosphere. According to Microsoft,
"Microsoft began with a dream of a PC on every desk and in every home. Thirty years ago this seemed impossible. Today, for the more than one billion people we’ve reached, life has changed profoundly: information is more readily available; connections are more easily made; commerce is more quickly achieved; and success is closer than ever. But for more than five billion people, the opportunity to learn, connect, create, and succeed remains elusive."
The Student Innovation Suite provides stripped-down versions of Windows XP, Office 2007, Live Mail Desktop, and several other educational tools for $3 per PC to foreign governments who give computers to underserved users. Not quite free, but close enough, right? Probably. In some ways, this marks a real opportunity for quite literally billions of users to be exposed to the same software that is sitting on my desktop and those of the countless companies whose global operations will impact developing nations in very significant ways in the years to come.
It is also a way to build markets which could be unbelievably lucrative in 5 years' time. Do we care, as long as more students have the opporunity to cross the digital divide in the name of corporate philanthropy? Maybe not, but we should at least be hoping that Microsoft's recognition of very serious competition from the open source and academic communities leads to new, better, and more innovative products for our students in both developed and developing countries.