commentary To all the opponents of Microsoft: give credit where credit is due and let’s work together on bridging the digital divide.

This week Bill Gates, chief software architect of the world’s biggest and most influential software company, and Prime Minister of Australia John Howard met for a festive public event to help bridge the digital divide.

The event — heavily scripted and working to a by-the-numbers storyline with all the unpredictability and shading of a soap star wedding — became a love-in between Gates and this country’s electioneering top pollie.

However, all joking aside, Gates announced he would donate AU$40 million over the next five years to a community initiative to help
disadvantaged Australians overcome the digital divide.

The cash, licences or services, depending on each charity partner’s needs, will be directly allocated to groups who service the underprivileged, such as the Smith Family, Australian Seniors Computer Club Association, WorkVentures, Inspire Foundation and Yarnteen Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Corporation.

Of course, it didn’t take long before political and business foes of Microsoft and the Howard government unsheathed their claws, using the opportunity to promote their own agenda with little regard for the big picture.

Senator Brian Greig of the Australian Democrats was one such person to claim that it was “a drop in the ocean” compared to the estimated AU$1 billion in revenue the software giant generates in Australia, and helped the company “to create a soft cuddly face” for the public.

By this analysis that means that Microsoft will donate just under 1 percent of its revenue to help organisations in need across Australia.

I reckon that’s quite considerable.

But Greig wasn’t finished there. He was keen to use the platform to promote his own political agenda — to introduce preference for open source software in government.

“Once a group is ‘addicted’ to a certain form of proprietary software, moving away from that framework can be very difficult and very expensive,” he whinged.

Unfortunately Brian, I think getting access to basic computer needs, such as computer hardware, training and connection to that diverse and wide-ranging educational tool, the Internet, should be our priority.

If charities have to install Windows to do this, then so be it. Let’s put the philosophical views behind us in the IT community and work together to address this greater issue.

If a charity organisation has hardware that can run Windows XP or Windows Server, it can certainly be converted down the track to a non-Windows operating system if Microsoft somehow decide to demand money for software licences from these organisations in need.

I’d also back up and say that with smart implementation of Web-based applications and open standards use of Microsoft software through things like Web services, it is an exaggeration to say end users will be “addicted”.

However, it’s got to be said that Microsoft is not the only organisation tackling the digital divide in Australia.

The Computerbank initiative is a fine example of a country-wide program that helps to get donated older hardware to run GNU/Linux systems bundled with free and open source software to disadvantaged groups around Australia.

Free and open source software has great advantages in this area as it does not require software licences and can be scaled down for machines running older hardware. The biggest challenge for this group is getting volunteers and funding from the Australian corporate community.

Forty million dollars can go a long way to helping those in need get access to basic technology needs in Australia. Is this something that the Democrats want to reject or give back? Maybe Senator Greig should consider that if we gave the money back, on principle, that some users would never encounter the Internet and be able to ever make the informed decision to use or not use open source technology. They will simply miss out altogether.

Of course, the irony of the situation is that Howard was happy to ride the publicity wave of Microsoft tackling this problem without pledging or matching the Microsoft donation. Maybe the Democrats, Labor, or coalition would like to put up more money for these local organisations like Computerbank?

Unfortunately Microsoft is going to have to pledge a whole lot more money if we are ever going to address the greatest digital divide we have in Australia – politicians from all parties who don’t properly understand the real issues that affect IT professionals and end users in this country and can’t work together to better the local industry.