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Microsoft to increase focus on handsets for poor

Microsoft will increase its focus on making mobile phones part of its strategy to spread IT to people in developing nations, based partly on a prototype already developed for the purpose called Fone+.

It's a subtle change from the past now that Craig Mundie, chief research and strategy officer at Microsoft, has taken over the company's Unlimited Potential Group, which focuses on the developing world. The group used to focus on ultra-low-cost laptops, shared computing and other initiatives, but the leadership change appears to put Windows Mobile and handsets into a primary role to spread computing to poor areas of the world.

Fone+ is an idea that's been around for a few years at Microsoft. Now, after testing prototypes, Mundie says it's clear such devices can lower the costs of computing for the poor.

The idea is to connect a low-to-mid-end smartphone based on the Windows Mobile OS to a TV via a docking station so data on the handset can be displayed on the TV screen. That way, people can use the computing power in the smartphone on a big screen.

"We're at the point now where all phones 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," said Mundie in an interview at Microsoft's Government Leaders Forum in Jakarta, Indonesia Thursday.

"It’s a lot cheaper than having to buy a whole separate computer," he added.

Even in the poorest places in the world, people have televisions, he said, and Microsoft wants to use that existing technology to spread computing.

Low-cost computers, Internet-based services and special types of software addressing specific challenges will be the other three pillars of Microsoft's long-term research and development efforts aimed at developing nations.

Mobile phones are more widespread than computers these days, with the number of handset users estimated at over 3 billion worldwide. They're also prevalent in the third world, where farmers and others use them as an important tool for business, for example, to check market prices in several locations in order to get the best prices for their produce.

Mobile phone networks are also widespread. Most of the world's population is covered by mobile phone networks, according to the GSM Association and CDMA Development Group.

Anoop Gupta, corporate vice president of the Unlimited Potential Group, said Fone+ is still under development and Microsoft doesn't have a timeline to put out a specific product.

"It’s an internal project right now," he said. "The basic notion is that today the distinction if you look at the compute power, memory and resources inside your phone and inside an Asus ultra-low cost PC, that difference is becoming smaller and smaller."

He also emphasised Microsoft's commitment to continue looking at all ways to make computing more accessible to the poor.