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MS launches 'unlimited potential' campaign

The big picture on the 'next five billion'

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Comment Microsoft has announced its Unlimited Potential campaign - with a sub headline of "The Next Five Billion". This number points to the number of people as yet untouched by general computer technology, with only around 1.2 billion people on the planet currently having such technology available to them.

With multiple offerings hidden under the main banner, Microsoft seems to be providing "commercial philanthropy" - a very low cost of entry to the target users, but also in a way that provides revenue with margins to the mothership. As an example, governments in qualifying environments will be able to license a Microsoft stack (operating system and software) at a cost of $3 per student.

By doing this, the theory goes, Microsoft will turn out adults who are more used to Microsoft than the alternatives - and local commercial organisations will probably opt for buying Microsoft products to tap in to this available skills base.

However, an area that has to be watched here is the overall global sustainability of getting technology to people who are disenfranchised through existing distribution models. The West went through massive changes in the 19th century as the industrial revolution progressed, with mass migration from the rural economies to the cities.

Many of the people moving from the country to the cities found their situation did not improve - life in a country hovel was often better than the day to day struggle to survive in a city slum. The move would also have had an impact on the agricultural output of the rural economies but luckily the agricultural revolution had already replaced a lot of manual resources with automated ones, so providing a ready base of workers for the industrial needs.

If we look at the relentless pace of the technical revolution in certain emerging economies we see something remarkably similar - cities such as Mumbai and Pune in India and Beijing and Shenzhen in China have become the technology magnets, attracting people from surrounding towns and villages towards a promise of wealth in the technologically advanced centres.

Again, this migration has bred large shanty towns and/or low cost, low quality housing for the people who thought the cities would provide them with wealth - but find that if they can find a job, the wages paid do not make up for the increase in their cost of living. Worse, the loss to the agronomy of the country is not being offset to the level that the West managed and the pace of change is happening over the space of a few years, rather than the decades the industrial revolution took. With the West having a degree of dependency on the agricultural output of many of the emerging economies, any failure in the agronomies of these countries has a far-reaching knock-on effect.

It becomes incumbent, therefore, on technology vendors to be careful in how they approach these markets. The creation of specific technology centres within many countries will lead to destabilisation of the supply and demand of basic staples and to unsustainable use of resources, first at a local level but rapidly growing to a country, regional, and then global level.

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