Microsoft's Mundie talks up tech for poor nations

Interview: Craig Mundie discusses the Unlimited Potential Group and what Microsoft is doing to create new technology for people in the developing world

Microsoft's Craig Mundie and Ray Ozzie are poised to take over more of Bill Gates' technology role after the Microsoft chairman steps away from daily work at the company in July.

One of the first changes for Mundie, the chief research and strategy officer, is leading Microsoft's Unlimited Potential Group, which includes the company's work for the developing world as well as its philanthropy. The job should keep Mundie in close contact with Gates, since the co-founder's departure is meant to give him more time at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which also works on technology initiatives aimed at helping developing nations.

IDG News Service talked to Mundie at Microsoft's Government Leaders Forum Asia 2008 last week about possible changes at Unlimited Potential, and what Microsoft is doing to create new technology for people in the developing world.

IDGNS: Since Unlimited Potential is under you now, what does that mean for the group? More money, more attention?

Mundie: No. The recent decision to put it in my group is really just so that I can provide some consistent oversight to it. In a way, I helped create the Unlimited Potential Group several years ago, and we had housed it within one of the business divisions, and a number of executives were providing oversight to it.

The other real reason to put it in my group is because the other two new businesses I've got in my group are health and education, and when we look at what the Unlimited Potential needs are, yes one component of it is to allow people to be productive, but almost invariably the other two legs of that stool are health care and education.

IDGNS: Does your early work at Microsoft's non-PC division help with your role in Unlimited Potential?

Mundie: No, not really -- except for the cell phone. The work that I did with Windows Mobile and the cell phone stuff I think has carried forward today and does give us a basis for adapting cell phone technologies to the Unlimited Potential class of opportunities. Interactive TV may be another one that may ultimately play a role here.

IDGNS: What are some strategies you have for Unlimited Potential? What technologies will you focus on?

Mundie: When you think about people with little or no disposable income and how to approach that market, it's clear that you can't go at it with the idea that they just run out and buy personal computers or that we're going to give them all one. And so a lot of our focus has been on trying to take technologies that are derived from the global scale use of PCs and help build both less expensive devices and software that's more purpose-built relative to the needs of those kinds of customers.

The other thing that's a big factor, of course, is the cell phone. We're right at the point now where all phones will go from dumb to smart. And I think that's a major focus for us in terms of how we can bring access to the Internet and some of these technologies, particularly around health care, to this rural poor population. That coupled with online services and more sophisticated software. My dream is that we really can get to the point where it really is do-it-yourself medicine and, to a certain extent, do-it-yourself education. I don't see a way where the world is going to scale up traditional concepts of health and education for another four and a half billion people. Even the United States, which is the wealthiest country in the world, still doesn't have a plan to provide health care to its own citizens, let alone another four to five billion.

Cell phones, low-cost computers, Internet-based services, special types of software addressing those particular challenges, those are the areas where we'll do our research and development and the strategy by which we think IT can help provide a scalable solution to those things.

IDGNS: What are you working on for kids?

Mundie: A lot of work we've been doing in the Unlimited Potential Group is in lowering the entry-level cost of letting kids gain access to IT stuff for the classroom. One of the ones I love the most is MultiPoint.

You can basically give a class one PC and one little projector as a common display they can all look at on the wall, and you give every kid a mouse and all the mice plug into one computer. The cheapest part of a computer is the mouse. So if every kid has a mouse, then you can come up with novel ways where they are all simultaneously using the machine. People have had in classes shared access PCs or little PC labs. And you go to most governments today, and they tend to measure their success in how many PCs exist in a classroom environment or how many PCs they have per student they have, but mostly they don't have enough for it to become an integral part of the curriculum. They'll say oh, look, we have one for every 100 students now and all that means is that each kid probably gets access to the computer for 15 minutes a week, so it's not really integrable into the curriculum. But if you take that one computer and you stick it in a classroom and all day long, 30 kids can all be using it at a time, interacting with it, learning with it, for an investment that you can say is no bigger than governments are already trying to make you take the same machines with these very low-cost extensions and you make it an integrated part of the curriculum. Those are the kinds of initiatives that the UP group does that other groups don't do.

IDGNS: Wouldn't the kids fight? How would that work?

Mundie: The way MultiPoint works, each mouse produces a unique cursor on the screen, you may have your own name up there. So what happens is the curriculum is designed around the system. So you could break kids into groups and have kids solve problems together. So the R&D wasn't just see how to fit 20 mice onto one PC, it was how do you create the software that allows people to come up with applications for education that benefits from the fact that there are 20 cursors on the screen. So it's the whole stack on how you train people on a computer that way as well as the computer science.

IDGNS: You haven't said much about ultra-low-cost laptops. Is that not important for the developing world?

Mundie: It's important and Microsoft will have offers and we already do have products with the Classmate and even Negroponte's OLPC laptop, we might provide software for that, too.

We would love to see an environment where every kid has their own laptop, and that is the long-term outcome that you ultimately want to strive for. But we're also realistic in saying that even at $200 per device, given the number of kids that don't have anything today, I just think it's going to be a big lift for governments around the world to figure out how they'd buy even a $200 device for every kid.

The reason I highlight things like MultiPoint, is, if you had a class of 30 kids and you say you're going to even buy them a $200 computer, then that's $6,000. With MultiPoint, if you buy just a standard PC for about $300, and each mouse costs you $3, then for 400 bucks instead of $6,000, you have the opportunity to introduce the computer into the curriculum for every class there. Now that's not as good as every kid having their own laptop and they don't get to take it home with them, which is a big loss, but it gets them started.

IDGNS: I understand you are an avid boater?

Mundie: Yes, I have a 70-foot Sea Ray Express Cruiser.

IDGNS: Well, the Secretary General of ASEAN, in his speech this morning, pointed out that in the rising economic tide of the world, not all boats are rising at the same pace. The yachts are rising faster than the bamboo fishing rafts, so to speak. From your background, and with your 70-foot Sea Ray, how do you know what a person in the developing world needs in terms of technology?

Mundie: Well, in a way I take a little bit of exception to his analogy. You know, I travel around the world. My wife and I went down to boat in India a few months ago. So we're on this boat run by a captain, a cook, and a deckhand, and they all three had cell phones and the whole time that we're cruising in the rural backwaters of India, these guys are basically calling and making arrangements about where to pick up the next guy and where we're going to dock and stuff on their cell phones. I think the stories are myriad now about fishermen that have cell phones whose fishing productivity is being improved by both getting reports on where the fish are... and where they get to know what the market price for the fish is and where the markets are. So I contend that even those fishermen, as small as their boats are, actually are benefiting from access to these technologies.

So all of that is consistent with what I'm trying to do, which is to find economical ways to provide Internet-based services and access to those services through a low-cost computing environment and with software that's appropriate to their needs.

I think that the last big part is you have to create what we call a software ecosystem in each of these geographies to build the applications people want. Microsoft is not going to write the global fisherman market pricing application. It's just not a thing that we would do. But, on the other hand, if we can give people the tools then in southern India, for example, some guy can write a fishing application and make it available. You know, we've done that historically on the PC and we are increasingly doing that on the smartphones and as the Internet-based services emerge, Microsoft is committed to providing a platform that provides a programming model for the application developer to build and deploy the Internet-based component of these future applications.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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