Microsoft's Partners in Learning (PIL) program is one of those intiatives that only the hardest hearted cynics would disparage. Advancing the quality of education? Helping train teachers? Providing students in developing nations with access to technological tools? What's not to like?
Some Microsoft observers -- including a few I wouldn't characterize as mean-spirited haters -- have portrayed Microsoft's growing efforts to seed its technologies in developing countries as Microsoft's response to the growth of Linux and open-source software in relatively (and in some cases, completely) untapped markets. If the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) folks weren't delivering Linux-based laptops to developing world students, Microsoft would have zero interest in being in that market, some believe. And if Microsoft really does want to turn the next billion PC users into Microsoft users, the company better be looking outside of its established markets, some Microsoft watchers argue.
My take? I'm not here to pillage PIL. But I do think it's important to mention the business side of the equation when talking about Microsoft's more philanthropically minded initiatives like PIL.
Microsoft announced this week that it is committing $235.5 million to PIL over the next five years, bringing its total PIL investment to nearly $500 million over ten years. What's not in Microsoft's press release is the fact that a a big reason the Redmondians are investing in PIL is because developing nations are requiring education and job-training investment dollars before they'll even talk about doing business.
Investing in education and training is a cost of doing business in many countries that are at the middle and bottom of the economic pyramid, Microsoft officials acknowledge. Countries like Russia, Libya and Mexico aren't signing technology deals with Microsoft because they like Microsoft; they are doing so because Microsoft is agreeing to provide the kind of technology training and investments in education that they are making a condition of doing business there, Microsoft execs admit.
PIL is one component of Microsoft's burgeoning Unlimited Potential (UP) group. UP is the team behind Windows Starter Edition, the version of XP (likely to be) honed to work on OLPC XO laptops, the $3 Student Innovation Suite (Windows + Office), FlexGo pay-as-you-go subscriptions, MultiPoint collaboration technology and other deliverables.) Microsoft is banking on a return on its UP investments, even when its investments are designed to "do good."