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Gates: Businesses need to embrace the poor

Although Windows 7 news grabs headlines, Microsoft chairman spends bulk of speeches urging businesses and governments to focus on helping world's have-nots.

MIAMI--In two separate speeches on Friday, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates made the case that businesses need to see serving the poor as part of their mission and that governments need to see private businesses as potential partners.

Bill Gates shakes hands with Hernan Rincon, Microsoft's vice president for Latin America, before speaking at the Government Leaders Forum in Miami. Ina Fried/CNET

One of the big topics for both audiences was the notion of microfinance--improving the access to credit and banking to the poor.

"The idea of how they create loans for the poorest is part of it," he said at the Government Leaders Forum. But although today microfinance has focused on loans, there is more to it. "We need to get savings and even some insurance products."

Gates talked about how technology can play a role, noting that when payment is tied to the cell phone, it offers the potential for lower interest rates.

In every industry, Gates said, businesses need to start thinking about how they can use some of their energy and resources, say 6 percent, to expand their reach to poorer segments either in their own country, or globally. Food companies need to focus on micronutrients, while drug companies should devote some energy to diseases that affect largely the poor, such as malaria and tuberculosis.

Click here to read all of the stories in The Borders of Computing series.
Click here to read all of the stories in The Borders of Computing series.

Already, he said, there are examples of companies in each industry doing this.

"Cell phone companies, banks, energy companies, technology companies, food companies, we have a lot of good examples in each of those industries," he said at the Inter-American Development Bank meeting.

But while there are a few leaders who are onboard, Gates acknowledged that his notion of creative capitalism has not been uniformly embraced. "Many of the companies are skeptical," he noted. "As we have examples of success we can overcome that."

Education was another key topic, with one questioner at the Government Leaders Forum asking Gates about whether computer labs or one-to-one computing projects are the way to go.

"The costs of moving to a one computer per child are fairly high and yet in the long term that's what we recommend," Gates said. With computer labs, Gates said, the most enthusiastic students tend to gravitate to the machines, monopolizing their use, while students who need the practice the most fall behind and never catch up.

He noted that many countries have already set up pilot programs, with one region in Spain providing laptops to 10,000 students. At the same time, he said such projects require years of planning

He also talked up the potential of one of his favorite technologies--the Tablet PC.

"Today that machine is something like a $1,000 machine," he said. "Over the next three or four years that will become a $400 machine."

He noted that his daughter uses one instead of textbooks at her school, and can forward her homework to her dad.

"I can help her out on anything where she's confused," he said. Assignments are turned in electronically and returned by e-mail. "It's just so natural for her."