Microsoft has added its support to the efforts of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) to apply IT to education initiatives in developing countries. The two organisations will collaborate on projects to develop IT use and literacy in developing countries.
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This is not the first time Unesco has asked commercial organisations for support. It had already struck similar agreements with Hewlett-Packard and Intel as well as companies outside the high-tech industry, said Unesco director-general Koïchiro Matsuura.
"Unesco recognises that it can be neither efficient nor effective acting alone," Matsuura said.
Microsoft chairman and chief software architect Bill Gates said the two organisations share a vision: "Empowering people all over the world."
Matsuura and Gates appeared on stage together at Unesco headquarters in Paris on Wednesday (17 November), minutes after signing the co-operation agreement defining eight areas in which their organisations will work together.
Among other things, Unesco and Microsoft will work together to create a syllabus for integrating IT into teaching; train teachers in the use of IT; preserve linguistic diversity through development of localised software; and refurbish old computers to help disadvantaged communities. Microsoft already operates a project to recycle computers, the Digital Pipeline Project.
Gates emphasised that this is a strategic commitment, not a commercial one. He would not put a figure on the cost to Microsoft for participating in Unesco projects, but said the company is already committed to donating $1bn (£540m) in software and cash over five years through a programme called Partners in Learning.
"This is about software empowerment, it is not some big commercial opportunity," Gates said. "This is not based on any profit and loss goal, it is about the excitement of our employees."
Microsoft, however, is facing increasing pressure from open-source software around the world, especially in developing markets.
In Asia, for example, several software companies are jointly developing Linux server software for corporate and government users in the region, and the Malaysian government mandated the in-house deployment of open-source software. In Africa, open-source developers released a variant of Linux, called Impi 2, and various local-language versions of other open-source software.
Microsoft might appear a strange bedfellow for Unesco, which has for some time championed the use of free and open-source software in developing countries. However, both Gates and Matsuura said that there was no intention to change Unesco's stance.
Matsuura went further: "Indeed, we would like to strengthen our cooperation with providers of open-source software," he said.
Peter Sayer writes for IDG News Service