Microsoft to Make Mobiles for the Poor

Companies that provide phones and associated services are turning their attention to developing nations as sources for growth.

Microsoft once thought that one laptop per child (OLPC) was the way to bring computing to the world's needy. It has recently shifted focus, and now believes in the power of its smartphones as the best platform for computing and Internet access in developing nations.

With most major markets around the world at or nearing saturation of mobile phones, companies that provide phones and associated services are turning their attention to developing nations as sources for growth. One thing that inhabitants of developing nations have little access to are computers and the Internet. Given their power to enrich peoples' lives, Microsoft believes that bringing these technologies to the poor is an important goal. The shape of that idea is changing, however.

The One Laptop Per Child program was created several years ago by a band of computer industry players. Microsoft backed the program, whose goal was to design and manufacture laptops that were inexpensive enough that most anyone could afford one. OLPC has had its ups and downs, and the cost of the target computer has far surpassed $100 (which is thought to be too expensive).

Microsoft now believes smartphones are the answer. Given their portability, and the growing ubiquity of wireless networks, it makes sense on the surface. What Microsoft wants to do is create a stripped down version of its Windows Mobile operating system. This will help, in part, to reduce the cost of the devices. Using them as a mobile computing platform, Microsoft wants to pair them with a docking station that can be attached to any standard TV. This will give the user a close-to-normal experience for creating basic documents and surfing the Web.

"We're at the point now where all phones go from dumb to smart," said Craig Mundie, chief research and strategy officer at Microsoft. "And I think that's a major focus for us in terms of how we can bring access to the Internet and some of these technologies, particularly around health care, to this rural poor population. It's a lot cheaper than having to buy a whole separate computer." Since TVs are prevalent even in the poorest regions, Microsoft thinks tapping into their presence is the way to go. I can't disagree.

For programs that send doctors, nurses and other health professionals to developing regions, communication is a critical tool. Fone+ could not only benefit the inhabitants of developing nations, but the doctors sent there to treat them.