Microsoft is making an effort to get its technologies into the hands of a new segment of society by pledging free software for all 284 government-backed community technology centres. CEO Steve Ballmer said at a press conference at Gallagher Estate last week that the move was a sustainable way to take the latest technologies to rural outposts, since training would form a major part of Microsoft's commitment to ensure the computer centres were used effectively.

"We hope to reach perhaps 500000 or more people who don't today have access to information technology," he said. Microsoft announcement yesterday comes just three weeks after the State Information Technology Agency issued a tender for free open source software. This poses a major threat to Microsoft, which charges substantial licence fees for using its products. But Ballmer denied that the pledge to provide free software was a direct response to the threat from open source.

The announcement was timed to coincide with his visit to SA -- his first in a decade -- and not to get Microsoft products more entrenched before competition heats up, he said.Government had a duty to assess open source software if it could meet its needs better than proprietary programmes.

"We will compete with any challenger because for overall value we think we can beat anybody," Ballmer said. Microsoft did not say how much the initiative was costing, but it said it would supply desktop software to each of the 284 centres, which have an average of 10 computers. It would also train a core of people in 12 areas who would tour the technology centres to pass on their skills. The centres provide entrepreneurs and school learners with facilities including PCs, printers and the internet. The project is being conducted in partnership with Universal Services Agency, a government body formed to take information technology to every citizen.

Microsoft has already set up 48 centres in SA where rural communities have access to computers, the internet and other business technologies. The initiative with the Universal Services Agency was "a fantastic way" to participate in a broader and more significant project, Ballmer said. "We are serious about enabling all people in all parts of the world to realise their full potential. There is a digital divide in all countries, though it is perhaps bigger and needs even more help and attention to be properly bridged here in SA," he said. The Universal Services Agency's CEO Sam Gulube said studies of the success of the 284 centres showed that a lack of training was the main reason some of them had failed.

Business Day