At Microsoft, seeking the next billion computer users

Bill Gates gave Will Poole a not-so-simple job: figure out how to connect the rest of the world's inhabitants to computer technology. Video: Microsoft's MultiPoint for emerging markets

Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer got Microsoft its first billion customers. It's Will Poole's job to get the next billion.

Poole, who co-leads Microsoft's emerging-markets push, is chartered with enabling the company's goal of allowing 1 billion more people to access computing technology by 2015.

The company has a number of efforts under way in the area, from the Starter Editions of Windows XP and Vista, to shared computers for classrooms, to research into turning a cell phone into a low-cost computer by connecting it with a large display. Poole said the last effort, which has garnered a fair bit of interest, is moving from the drawing board to reality.

"We've got it in development in China right now," he said during a recent meeting with CNET reporters and editors. "We've got a manufacturing partner signed on with us and our group in Beijing is working quite hard on it. It'll be in trials I think within a year, and we'll see how people respond to it."

In the meeting, Poole talked about Microsoft's approach, as well as some of the challenges, which stretch well beyond the fact that many people can't afford the latest technology. In actuality, relevance and accessibility are bigger hurdles for the world's poor, Poole said.

When I started looking at this about five years ago, I thought that affordability was the biggest challenge. It turns out that affordability is actually the third on the list of issues. The first one turns out to be relevance.

Q: How can Microsoft reach people who historically have not been users of its technology?
Poole: Let me begin by clarifying the difference between emerging markets and emerging segments. An emerging market is what people typically think about--such as Brazil, Russia, India and China. The other includes very large developing economies. Of course there are many people in those countries who do not have very good access to technology. At the same time, we look more broadly at a concept called emerging segments...people who do not have access to technology in whatever market they're in.

So what do you do to reach those people? There are obviously people who can't afford technology here in the United States, as well as in our neighboring countries and in emerging markets.
Poole: There are three primary areas where we can help people realize social and economic opportunity through technology. Transforming education is one. The second one is looking at fostering local innovation, and the third one is enabling jobs and opportunities.

When I travel around the world I see the power of the PC to bring people new opportunities--either to have skills that they can apply to get better jobs to earn more money, or to take a disadvantaged person who simply could not get a job at all because of a handicap.

What are some of the technologies that you guys are working on that can really help beyond the economic issues that are in play?
Poole: You bring up a very good point. When I started looking at this about five years ago, I thought that affordability was the biggest challenge. It turns out that affordability is actually the third on the list of issues. The first one turns out to be relevance. That means bringing a product to market that really meets the needs of somebody in an emerging segment--be it in rural India or in urban China or down the street, here in San Francisco. Are we building a technology that is relevant to the specific needs and problems that they have?

Will Poole, corporate VP for Microsoft's Unlimited Potential project, tells's Ina Fried how the new 'MultiPoint' is helping in the classroom.

The second thing is to look at whether the technology is accessible to them. Can they find a place to buy it? Can they get support? Can they get broadband connectivity to bring them into the world of the Web? And then the third thing is affordability.

So, for example, in Asia we focus a lot on education because that's a very high priority there. In Latin America, we focus a little bit more on the jobs and opportunities and helping people get better jobs through the use of software technology. So there's a variety of different technologies we'll bring to the market, depending on the specific needs of local people.

I've seen a lot of interesting demos from across the company of some different approaches. One of those is called MultiPoint, where it's basically an entire classroom using one computer. Can you talk a little about how that works?
Poole: MultiPoint came from Microsoft Research India. They had sent people out to see what kids were doing with PCs in schools. What they found was that kids tended to be gathered around a PC and (watching) one person do their thing and then they took turns every five minutes or so. It was really not very engaging. So they developed this technology called Microsoft MultiPoint, which enables an application to be built that lets multiple mice be used with a different cursor for each kid. So one kid can be solving a math problem in one part of the screen while another one is solving a math problem on another part of the screen.

They basically can be time-sharing the screen and working collaboratively. What we found is that not only do they get to be more engaged with what they do on the PC...but they help each other. That's turned out to be something that's very beneficial from an education perspective. The kids are engaged and collaborating to solve a problem.

A lot of people think that for much of the world the first computing device that people use won't be a PC. It'll be some sort of mobile device. Obviously, that's an area that Microsoft has spent some time on, but it's a little bit further from its comfort area. What are you doing in the mobile space as far as non-PC devices?
Poole: Well, we certainly agree that the first computing device which will be used by many people around the world will be a phone. You see this happening in emerging segments all around the planet today. Mobile phones are really just taking off as the prices come down and the access is going up. We think that there are some interesting things to do to help make the mobile phone become a better device.

How close is that to being a product? You take the phone that people are already getting, hook it up to the TV they already have and you've got a computer. The phones that we use today in the U.S. certainly are capable of that from a technology perspective. How close is that?
Poole: Well, it's still got a ways to go. We've got it in development in China right now. We've got a manufacturing partner signed on with us, and our group in Beijing is working quite hard on it. It'll be in trials I think within a year and we'll see how people respond to it. It's a new concept in the sense of trying to bring together PC and phone technology in a lower-cost device. It's not something that you're going to see a businessperson in a developed market using while walking down the street. We're trying to really target the needs of a broader population and so we're very excited about the opportunity there, but time will tell.

Obviously, Microsoft is not the only company looking at how to get computing devices into the hands of more people across the globe. The project that's gotten the most attention is the One Laptop Per Child project. What do you make of a program the group is launching in which people in the U.S. can buy one of the laptops for their own use, and then a second computer would go overseas?
Poole: It's an interesting way to get people involved in this challenge that we all see, which is how do you effectively apply technology to education. I'll be very interested to see how it comes out as well.

How important is it that that first device people use be running a Microsoft operating system versus Linux or another operating system?
Poole: Interestingly enough, we don't see that as much of a battle. The battle is around nonconsumption or around buying a new two-wheeled motor vehicle as opposed to buying a PC for the home...Clearly, we have an interest in having our software used and we think that the value that we offer is very deeply desired--particularly as people get into more of the business world...But our primary goal is around just getting technology to be adopted.

How much might Microsoft benefit in the coming years from these efforts to get more people using computers?
Poole: There's no doubt that the growth potential in emerging markets is tremendous...When Bill Gates announced the Unlimited Potential effort back in April in Beijing, he said that we'd like to see the first billion people get benefits from technology by the year 2015. It's going to take a while for us and all of our partners working together to make this happen. But it's something that we think will happen.

I've heard he's really tasking you guys to do it a few years sooner than that.
Poole: Well, you know, Bill is never one to let you off easy. He wants to set a high bar and usually he finds out that people will go for it. We're going to go as fast as we can, but it's not something that Microsoft alone can do. It really is a matter of us working with many, many other companies around the world, including the NGOs or governments or foundations. I think as people get excited and see the results, it will snowball and really pick up momentum. 

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