The cause of US education is $500 million better off this week thanks to Oracle?s Larry Ellison and Microsoft?s Bill Gates, but their charitable gestures clearly owe as much to the PC v. NC turf war as to any form of corporate philanthropy.
Gates dipped into his wallet first by announcing on Monday that he and wife Melinda would donate $200 million from his personal fortune to set up the Gates Library Foundation. This figure would, he said, be matched an equal sum from Microsoft?s corporate funds.
Not to be outdone, the flamboyant Ellison took time out from the Oracle8 launch in New York on Tuesday to commit $100 million to endow Oracle?s Promise, a new foundation set up under the auspices of a government-backed youth education initiative, America?s Promise.
But the charitable gestures, while undoubtedly benefiting the educational infrastructure of the US, also represent the latest salvos in the ongoing war between the two billionaires over the network computer and its supposed threat to the existing PC industry.
Since the NC concept was first articulated by Ellison two years ago, he has made education a running theme of his visionary sales pitch. An NC in every schoolkid?s satchel is one of his favourite notions, along with bringing the power of networked computing to educationally deprived areas of the US, such as the New York ghettos.
It?s hardly surprising then that the first principle of Oracle?s Promise is to get an NC on every US school desk from kindergarten through to the final year of high school as age 17 or 18 in order to give them access to the Internet. "The information age can rescue our schools," said Ellison on Tuesday. "The private sector must do more to ensure that all young people have the resources they need to fulfil their potential."
Ellison was unable to resist a by now familiar claim in his NC sales pitch. "Today?s costly PC is creating a society of haves and have nots," he said. "PCs are only in 30 per cent of US households. You can?t have an information age with 70 per cent of US families and their children disenfranchised."
As well as potentially raising educational standards, the presence of so many NCs in classrooms might also have the beneficial side effect of producing generations of schoolkids who grow up using NCs. Apple Computer won some of its most dedicated support from young developers by donating kit to universities and schools. Catch them young and you?ll have them for life.
Clearly this is not a prospect that Gates would relish, but his own $200 million and the equivalent Microsoft contribution will ensure that thousands of public libraries - including those in low-income areas - are kitted out with software in the shape of Windows and Internet Explorer, which of course will run on PCs rather than NCs.
Accusations of brinkmanship surrounded both announcements - "It took Microsoft one year to respond to the Internet, six months to the network computer and six hours to our donation," said Ellison - but the two companies can legitimately claim to be responding to calls from senior political figures for the hi-tech industry to give back more to society.
In April of this year, President Bill Clinton and former president George Bush used an educatio summit meeting in Philadelphia to demand greater private investment. This demand is being met, according to General Colin Powell, who heads up the America?s Promise initiative and who was on hand in New York to accept Oracle?s donation.
"The President's summit galvanised corporations and organisations across the country into action," he said. "Bridging the digitial divide that exists between our nation?s haves and have nots is critically important to preparing all children for success in the information age."
Both sets of donations will be used to extend existing educational schemes in which the two companies have been participating. The Gates Library Foundation will build on the Libraries Online initiative which Microsoft launched in 1995. The Foundation will distribute grants to libraries which apply for technology assistance in getting wired to the Internet.
Oracle?s Promise is an expansion of the Oracle Classroom of the Future scheme which already donates hardware and software to low income schools around the US. The Promise scheme will also see the launch of the Oracle Challenge To Help Us Help which will take the form of a Website to encourage other corporations to adopt a school or a classroom for support.
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