Sunday, 6 May 2007

Government Leaders Forum Asia 2007

My apologies for the late arrival of this post. But as the picture shows, life has been more than a little interesting of late. The week before last had me in China climbing a part of the Great Wall, at Badaling, albeit slowly, as well as visiting both the Forbidden City, and the Summer Place, in Beijing.

Back to back with that, in the week prior, and after, I have had two interesting strategic planning sessions with a NZ regional tourist board and a NZ regional museum/library, both of whom are developing new digital strategies for the read write world of web 2.0. Of these more later, but first, the Beijing connection.

Government Leaders Forum Asia 2007
I was there at the invitation of Microsoft NZ to attend the Microsoft Government Leaders Forum, Asia. The keynote speakers were among others, our own Mike Moore, Bill Gates, himself, and Nobel Prize Winner, Muhammad Yunus of the Grameen Bank, author and promoter of the concept and practice of micro-finance, which helps the poor by providing them with small loans to set up businesses.

The Forum also included seminars, sessions, and contributions from all the major countries in the Asia Pacific Region; including China, Japan ,Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam. It was a fascinating series of discussions.

Education – Inclusion and Innovation
Based on three themes, education, inclusion and innovation, the sessions tried to bring together both connection points, and differences, all with the intent of promoting dialogue between the countries themselves, and of course, Microsoft.

The next billion context
So what is Microsoft hoping to achieve? Well here’s the bit that fascinates – there are now 1 billion people who have some kind of touch point or connection to the Internet. Of these, according to Morgan Stanley, 36% are in Asia 24% are in Europe, with only 23% of users in North America.

Microsoft, according to all the conversations in Beijing, wants to be part of initiatives and programmes that will get the next 1 billion online in the next 10 years. And, yes that means getting behind lots of development projects.

Their logic of course is simple, yet effective – if you get another billion online, then eventually most of them will be either using or being touched by a piece of Microsoft software. In short corporate philanthropy and regional inter-governmental partnerships in education, inclusion, and innovation, make perfect sense for all.

Innovation - AP Portal
Microsoft’s main announcement in this area was the launch of Software AP, the new regional portal to coincide with the Summit.

It bring together three key audiences – the entrepreneur with the bright idea looking for investment support: the money in the form of some blue chip venture capital firms; and local and regional governments who want to use the portal to point both the idea and the money to the various country specific support strategies.

It’s a compelling idea – and if it works, a very welcome one. Currently, it’s restricted to five countries. And yes, New Zealand is one of them.

As for the ideas, Microsoft, when questioned at the press conference [by me as it happens] was absolutely adamant: for sure the innovation will be software based – but no - there was no obligation that the solution be based on a Microsoft framework. And, yes, the project will support open source ideas.
See here.

As might be imagined, both in the formal inter-governmental sessions, and in the speeches from Microsoft, education was a key theme. You can read a lot more on this here . However, the initiative that interested me came from Bill Gates himself, when he announced the detail of the Student Innovation Suite.

Student Innovation Suite.
This package features Microsoft Windows XP Starter Edition, along with Microsoft Office Home and Student 2007, Microsoft Math 3.0, Learning Essentials 2.0 for Microsoft Office and Windows Live Mail desktop. The price – US $3 – yes – three United States dollars

The detail
Naturally there is a context – the $3 offer is only to governments – and will only apply if a government matches it by giving, or supporting , the student to acquire a low cost pc or laptop.

In the first instance it will be targeted at developing countries, although any country, e.g. New Zealand ,can approach Microsoft for the deal if they are targeting it at the digital divide – i.e. poor students and their families. Find out more here

The context
So what's the context here? Nothing was spelled out, but it seems clear that this is Microsoft's, and Bill Gate’s in particular, answer to the open source, One Laptop per Child project.

This means there will need to be hardware partners who will build the low cost laptop which will, in effect, be the Windows version of the One Laptop Per Child scheme. The hint is that HP might well be that partner.

Where will all this lead? Who knows? For me, for the moment, three points are of interest.

1. Mr Gates goes to Beijing
First, by making the annoucement in person, it is clear that this fits Bill Gates wider vision and his increasing more private philanthropic self. Indeed, watching him give his speech at the Summit there was a tangible note of withdrawal, his energy quiet and almost detached when speaking of Microsoft, the corporation, while more eager and engaged when, later, in conversation with Dr Yunus, he talked of ‘his foundation’

Dr Yunus in turn was equally clear – for ICT to work as a development tool, we need hardware and software designed for the poorest in the world – not the high achieving corporate road warrior.

2. Create the market
Second, despite Bill Gates clear philanthropic fork, this almost giveaway offer makes total business sense for Microsoft. If you like these are the training wheels. If it all works out,
all the students will all be full paying customers eventually. And Microsoft has, as we all know, deep pockets to take the long view.

3. Changing the Platform
Third – by making the software and the hardware a given, it allows Microsoft to begin thinking about content platforms, especially as so many believe, this is where the next generation value chains will lie.
Inclusion - is there a bigger picture?
And so to inclusion - or in other languages , stretching towards the big development goals – eradicating poverty, universal education, equality of life.

Like many others I think ICT is a key tool for development, and can and should be a major lever towards social, cultural and economic inclusion.

However, as Dr Yunus also reiterated, it's essential, that the primary focus of ICT for development be community centred, and that though governments and big multi nationals have a key role, the primary levers need to be rooted in locally led practice.

Microsoft - looking for partnerships?
So how can a huge multi-national like Microsoft square that circle? Spending five days with them in China might just have offered me a few clues around that. First, this is still a very focused company – totally hierarchical for sure, but open to talent and with people and resources galore to make sure they hear every nuance around them.

For sure, the old Microsoft of ‘embrace and extend' is still built into their DNA – and they are still scarily competitiveto be around , and probably as ruthless as of old.

But yet, I also detected another, newer voice, which, curiously, I have also started to hear in the last few months at the local New Zealand level.

This voice, seems to be saying we are interested in developing social and cultural partners as well as commercial ones – we are interested in projects – and also open to conversations.

I can think of a few projects which might be a useful beginning to this agenda. Perhaps you can as well. And, given that conversations are always binary - your thoughts, as always, gratefully received!

In the meantime, its good to be back on this blog– and hopefully, I can get the pace and the rhythm of this puppy sorted in the coming few weeks. In short … more to come!


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Anonymous said...

The attraction seems to go both ways. China's universities have turned out to be the incubators for Beijing-based Microsoft Research Asia; the US firm and other multinational corporations help China sharpen its technology.China is placing a strong emphasis on science and technology. Its science and technology institutions have undergone two decades of extensive structural reform. The human resource base has been expanded and improved through changes in China's school system and extensive overseas study programs.

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Anonymous said...

Hi this is johcnena. I think its a nice site.The attraction seems to go both ways. China's universities have turned out to be the incubators for Beijing-based Microsoft Research Asia; the US firm and other multinational corporations help China sharpen its technology.

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