Many Are Already at Work on Fulfilling Gates?s Vision

Monday, February 4, 2008

By John Markoff

Bill Gates?s bold Davos challenge to the world?s capitalists last week should have come with equally bold footnotes.

“There are billions of people who need the great inventions of the computer age,” he asserted. “Breakthroughs change lives only where people can afford to buy them.”

Conspicuously missing from the appeal, which asserted that human nature is not just driven by greed but also by concern for our fellow beings, was any reference to the work and thinking of the Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus.

The microfinance innovator, who is known as the “banker for the poor,” recently wrote a book, “Creating a World Without Poverty: Social Business and the Future of Capitalism,” that foreshadows Mr. Gates?s newfound social philosophy.

Last week Mr. Gates called on the executives of the largest corporations to add social entrepreneurship to their agenda, a leopard-spot-altering exercise at best. However, in challenging his compatriots, one of the experiments he overlooked was Mr. Yunus?s stunning success at Grameen Phone in Bangladesh, an effort he has pioneered during the past decade in partnership with Telenor, a Norwegian wireless carrier.

Intended as an experiment to extend wireless communications networks to the world?s poorest people, the program has become a remarkable success on multiple levels. Not only did it create a class of “phone ladies” who brought wealth into village communities, it has grown quickly enough and been profitable enough that Mr. Yunus said this week in Davos that Telenor had decided to break its original promise to his organization and refused to turn over control to allow the program to be run on a not-for-profit basis.

The challenge now facing the firm is to replicate its success as a wireless voice provider as a wireless Internet company. This week in Davos, Mr. Yunus said that that transformation was well under way.

The deeper implication of that shift would be an advance from a communications to a computing revolution. As voice networks have paved the way into the farthest reaches of the emerging world, it is likely that they will quickly be followed by the Internet and the World Wide Web. That in turn could become a great leveler, bringing markets, electronic commerce and health care networks to the world?s poorest.

With any luck it will mean that the emerging nations will finally complete the promise of a failed computing experiment played out by a team of French and American computer scientists in Senegal a quarter of a century ago. The original idea was that computing technology would make it possible to skip a stage of economic development, with people in developing nations quickly joining the information society without having to undergo industrialization.

Which brings us back to Mr. Gates?s plea at the World Economic Forum last week. Microsoft?s research lab in India, he said, was focusing on a variety of projects, ranging from low-cost wireless to new computing interfaces that will allow semi-literate and illiterate people to use computers effectively.

These are great ideas, but at Davos this year there were already a proliferation of technology-driven projects in evidence, all targeted at the bottom of the economic pyramid. They indicated that over the next decade the so-called “digital divide” may prove less of a barrier than previously thought.

Because Moore?s Law ? the doubling of chip density at regular intervals ? drives down price while increasing performance, computing has reached an increasing portion of the world?s population at an accelerating rate. Today over three billion people ? half the world?s population ? have cell phones. This year at the World Economic Forum, wireless industry executives predicted that two billion more would be added in the next six or seven years.

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Source: New York Times (link opens in a new window)