Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Finally: competition for the world's poorest customers

It's a good thing when the likes of Nicholas Negroponte and Bill Gates start to devote part of their considerable resources to fighting poverty by bringing things like affordable laptops and proper healthcare to the Third World.

But novel as these admirable initiatives may sound, they still boil down to traditional charity. Negroponte doesn't want his laptop to cost less than $100 to keep the sales price down: he wants to keep the costs down of giving them away. Ditto the Bill&Melissa Gates Foundation with its future cures for infectious diseases.

A small niggling voice inside me that charity, even this new kind of charity, brings short-term relief rather than long-term development. You don't help people by giving them things, you help them by developing the instincts to get these things for themselves. Microcredit, for instance, its that bill perfectly.

So it's promising and refreshing to see how a large and wealthy corporation like Microsoft is now actually starting to compete for the nearly three billion potential consumers. After Negroponte's choice for Linux as the designated $100 laptop OS, Microsoft has gone out of its way to promote a competing initiative centered around the cellular phone, turning it into a computer with the help of a cheap adapter, a keyboard and a TV.

The world's largest corporations genuinely competing to become low-cost suppliers to the poorest prospects in the world: let's hope this is the beginning of a worldwide trend.

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