Microsoft has unveiled a global initiative to bring computers and technology education resources to emerging countries.

The initiative, an expansion of what Microsoft calls its "Unlimited Potential" strategy to promote technology skills and bring computers to emerging markets, includes several new programmes and partnerships to offer low-cost software, education, job training and PCs, said Orlando Ayala, senior vice president of Microsoft's Emerging Segments Market Development Group.

As part of the plan, Microsoft will offer a $3 software package called the Student Innovation Suite, which includes Windows XP Starter Edition, Microsoft Office Home and Student 2007, Microsoft Math 3.0, Learning Essentials 2.0 for Microsoft Office and Windows Live Mail desktop. The suite will be available to qualifying governments that are working to supply PCs directly to students to promote technology skills by the end of 2007. In 2008, Microsoft will extend its availability to all countries with economies defined as low or middle-income by The World Bank.

More information about the Student Innovation Suite can be found on Microsoft's website. The low-priced software is part of Microsoft's Partners in Learning programme, a five-year, $250-million plan to help educators distribute software and training to students.

Microsoft also plans to build 200 more Microsoft Innovation Centres – aimed at helping local software communities develop skills and create jobs – in 35 more countries by 2009. The company will work in tandem with local governments to find out what the needs are in the regions and how the local population can best be served by the centres, Ayala said.

Through a partnership with the Asian Development Bank, Microsoft will work with governments in the region to foster sustainable economic development. The company also has formed a partnership with India to develop an "employability portal" that will be online by the end of 2007.

According to Ayala, about 400,000 engineering students graduate college every year in India, but only 100,000 of them find jobs. Microsoft will help the government use the portal to help the rest of those graduates connect to the resources they need to get employed, he said.

Finally, Microsoft also has added five new countries to its Partnerships for Technology Access programmes: Argentina, Botswana, Chile, China and Egypt. This programme offers loans to countries to provide affordable PCs to small businesses in underserved communities.

While Microsoft's Gates has always been a proponent of using technology to solve social, economic and health problems worldwide through the philanthropic organization he runs with his wife, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Microsoft's latest moves to spread technology to emerging markets should not be seen as purely altruistic.

"You'll find that Microsoft would be fairly open if pushed that they don't go into a market for philanthropic reasons," said Clive Longbottom, founder and analyst of Quocirca, a technology research firm. He said Microsoft has to find more creative ways to distribute its software in emerging markets where open-source software and Linux have a foothold. The company has wisely decided partnering with local governments and global organisations to get software in the hands of students and developers is a good way to do that, he said.

Longbottom also commended Microsoft's Unlimited Potential plan for "thinking out of the box".

"They've learned it's not just a case of how do we manage to get licences in these areas and promote blanket coverage at a price-point that's attainable," he said. "It's a case of 'how do we get the licence cost out of the equation and put the ball in open source's court,' taking out the biggest consideration they would have: licence cost."

Ayala downplayed the competitive nature of Windows versus open source software and Linux in emerging markets. "It's not the technology people use that matters, it's what people can do with it," he said.