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Microsoft is squaring a clutch of private antitrust suits accusing the company of price gouging by donating more than $1 billion in cash, hardware, training and software to 12,500 schools in poor areas in America.

The donation spreads over five years, and removes an irritating litigation thorn from Microsoft's flank, while putting the company on the side of the angels.

"I think will really make a difference in the lives of millions of school children," CEO Steve Ballmer said in a conference call. Quite.

Microsoft places a value of $550 million on the software it is giving away, which in our books carries an effective marginal cost to the company of zero.

MS will also effectively donate 200,000 Intel and Mac PCs - which can be bought by the poor schools for $50 each. This will be a bonanza, obviously for Apple, and obviously for a handful of big-brand PC OEMs

It will be instructive to see how many competing software accounts Microsoft mops up on the Great PC Dole-out. If the UK education system is anything to go by, the vast majority of US schools by now are MS-only at the desktop level. But the point made by some is that MS shuts out any future competitors from an awful lot of schools for a very long time.

This is the concern that Red Hat, the biggest commercial Linux distro, seeks to exploit. In an opportunistic (and all the better for that) press release, the company offers to provide open-source software "in every school district in the United States free of charge".

The money freed by removing Microsoft's software from the settlement equation is enough to buy one million PCs, instead of the 200,000 proposed by Microsoft, Red Hat says.

Which is all very well. But should the poor be a playing field for IT companies to score points at the expense of their rivals?

If Red Hat really wants to help the indigenous poor, why doesn't it pay for free breakfasts for all children of primary school age in poor areas? And why doesn't Microsoft restock the public libraries with books, or pay for a hundred thousand class-room assistants. Or dole out free pianos, a cause we have urged since 1997.

Ragged Trouser Software Developers

Poor children in rich countries what do they need?
Here's our incomplete list. Somewhere safe to live; three meals a day; parents who love them, who don't beat them up, and who maybe even read to them occasionally; somewhere to play outside; a good school which doesn't treat them as failures because they are poor; books; swimming lessons; friends. And when they are a little older? A credit card. This is how one gains membership of the Digital elite, not through owning a poxy computer decked out with poxy software.

Western governments have a different set of hierarchies, which fits in well with the mores of IT firms. In the US and the UK in particular, the governing class is obsessed with the 'Digital Divide', which can be defined as the lack of access that the poor have to computing and Internet technologies by poor people.

How better to bridge this illusory divide than through private finance? And where better to bridge the Digital Divide than through deserving poor children? The adults are no-hopers; the young have a chance, if only they have some groovy software in school and a free laptop refurb - so long as they resist the temptation to sell it on the black market to buy season tickets for their local football club. ®

Divide and Rule

Free PCs for the poor on black market
Poorest Brits to be given PCs
Truants rewarded with £1K notebooks

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