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Gates on Digital Divide

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Reposted with permission from Wired News...mark


Gates: Poor Need Meds, not PCs
by Manny Frishberg

8:30 a.m. Oct. 19, 2000 PDT
SEATTLE -- Bill Gates appeared at the Digital Dividends conference here like a Tory at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, telling the 350 attendees that they were wrong to expect to find markets among the world's poorest people.

Eighty percent of the global population lives on less than one dollar a day, and most -- according to the World Resources Institute, which organized the conference -- have never made a telephone call, let alone used the Internet.

Since Monday, senior officials from the private sector, Third World governments, and funding organizations such as the World Bank had been talking about "doing well by doing good," using information technologies to spur development and create markets among the world's poor.

"The percent of growth that an IT firm like Hewlett-Packard will get from people who make less than a dollar a day is minimal," Gates said. "Do people have any concept of what it means to live on less than a dollar a day? There's no electricity. Do they have PCs that don't use electricity?"

These comments came during the question-and-answer session Wednesday following his address at the close of the three-day conference.

In his address, the Microsoft chairman talked about the need to tackle problems of disease and literacy as essential first steps to lifting the bottom tier of society. He said an estimated 8 million children die each year from easily treated or preventable diseases because they do not have access to vaccinations and medical care.

Asked if it were necessary to choose between a focus on health care and literacy on one hand and access to technology on the other, Gates said he agreed that "there can be parallel investments," but he added that "if somebody's interested in equity you'd only spend about 20 percent of your time talking about PCs before you get back to talking about health and literacy."

Before Gates' appearance on the stage, the three days of discussions were dominated by a sense of optimism about the role of the Internet and wireless communications in equalizing opportunities and bringing new patterns of development to the Third World.

C.K. Prahalad, a professor of business administration at the University of Michigan, called for rethinking the way people look at the bottom tier of societies and the need for new business models to address them.

"How can you go from [looking at] the poor as an intractable problem, to the poor as a market and a source of innovation?" he asked.

He said the introduction of wireless hand-held computers with voice controls and graphical displays are already changing the balance in rural areas of the Third World. The real question, he said, is not if the change in business strategies and approaches will come, but from where.

One example is the "Simputer," a hand-held 32MB Linux-based computer that runs on three AAA batteries. It is capable of performing a variety of functions from remote banking to Web browsing and email.

The device sells for US$200 and uses smartcard technology so that a whole village can maintain separate personal accounts using one machine. Debra Dunn, HP's vice-president for strategy and corporate opportunities, described the company's recently announced "e-inclusion" initiative, focusing on traditionally excluded markets and sustainable business ventures to "address the unique local needs" of people in remote areas of the world.

As part of that initiative, she said, HP is opening labs in China and India in the coming year. Its goal is to enlist 1 million partners, from global companies to individuals and regional organizations, and provide technology and services for programs in health, education, access to microcredit and to markets in at least 1,000 rural communities.

Dunn predicted that the creation of this "development market space where people can invest "will bring on a "digital renaissance" resulting in "an explosion of creativity" while producing a net gain for the company over time.

"We do not view this as a giant philanthropy initiative," she said.

Eric Benhamou, the 3Com CEO, cautioned at the invitation-only conference not to assume that people throughout the world have an automatic desire to become connected to the worldwide communications network. He said that people will only respond to the opportunities when they see a benefit for themselves coming from it.

"One of the things holding us back is the assumption that the solution to bridging the digital divide is affordability," he said.

To demonstrate the capabilities of the technology and to provide a "digital mirror" for a snapshot of the human condition, 3Com is launching the Planet Project, a four-day interactive poll in eight languages. It is designed to gather information and opinions from millions of people around the world.

While much of the polling will be done via the Internet, volunteer pollsters using laptops, PDAs and portable transmitters will be dispatched to remote locations from the Amazon jungle to Papua New Guinea and Inuit villages in Alaska, so that millions without access to the Internet will be included in the sampling. The polling will take place Nov. 15-18.

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