Digitalization’s role in fighting poverty
BIZLINKS - Rey Gamboa (The Philippine Star) - December 19, 2019 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — The digital world is finally embracing inclusive growth and fighting poverty, thanks to the phenomenal rise in the use of more powerful and cheaper touchscreen devices. Small entrepreneurs, and even farmers and fishermen are slowly learning how getting connected can improve their productivity.

Thanks too for free-ware, or open software that can be downloaded at no cost, and the relatively lower price of internet connectivity (although still high in the Philippines compared to other countries), the underprivileged are opening a new world where information leads to empowerment and emancipation.

Farmers and fishermen, for example, can benefit from weather updates, information exchanges on pestilence or market prices of produce, and even tutorials on problem-solving techniques or technical advice on new or available interventions.

With health delivery opening up to digitalization, health personnel can diagnose illnesses and prescribe remedies remotely. The country’s Doctors to the Barrios program could easily be enhanced digitally.

Online education can allow for faster dissemination of a new teaching syllabus to cope with the advanced learning needs of today’s students. For our Department of Education, this could mean an accelerated pace in retooling teachers to the radical approaches of teaching math, science, and reading.

The Philippine government, as with others in developing economies, will be challenged to seize the opportunity that is unfolding as more people in lower-income segments are discovering the power of today’s digital age. The initial cost may seem huge at the onset, but savings in the future will more than be worth it.

Software piracy

In the digital world, probably no other big business in information technology has been bothered by piracy issues than Microsoft, which owns the famous Windows suite of desktop applications and software, and was until recently the world’s largest software maker by revenue.

If Microsoft could translate the billions of illegally copied Windows programs that have been used in all the personal computers sold over decades as earnings, it would be a much more valuable company than what it is today, even surpassing Apple and Amazon as the highest valued US public companies.

That’s crying over spilt milk, though, as Microsoft may have over time realized, albeit without publicly owning up to it. While Microsoft Windows is still regarded by most personal computer owners as the most important productivity tool for their everyday computing use, many have successfully dodged paying out the fees that Microsoft Corp. usually charges.

So rampant today is the underselling of the Office app, for example, that even on Microsoft’s search engine Bing, keying in “cheap microsoft office” will yield advertisements that offer bargain prices for what you need complete with login, password, and sign-in URL via eBay’s message system.

In fact, if you ask a PC user who’s been able to successfully upload these pirated versions of Office for help, you’ll likely be working on your own application suite in no time at all in the comfort of your own home office.

Microsoft has of late not been confrontational with PC owners who use illegally copied Office versions, and instead has focused on going after big companies, governments, and enterprises. The latter recourse, in business sense, has continued to bring in the big bucks for the company.

Declining PC market

No, Microsoft has not really embraced philanthropic ideals, or yielded to ethical arguments that support free software under the open sourcing environment. It’s recent stance can be more construed as a surrender to new realities, like not being able to keep up the fight against Google’s Android’s mobile operating system, which comes free when you buy your smartphone or tablet.

Still, this can be considered well and good, or a temporary truce for the shrinking number of PC users that have not totally surrendered to touchscreen mobile devices, a market that Google has been able to exploit to become the world’s largest software company by revenue.

The world’s PC makers have admitted that their sales have been retracting by the tens of millions yearly from the peak of 365.4 million in 2011 to 259.4 million last year. This further continuing decline in global PC sales is expected this year.

This is not surprising, as even the education and gaming sectors are moving away from PCs to tablets and smartphones, which incidentally, have come at lowered costs even as their capabilities – like connectivity to 5G and memory – have radically improved.

Media copyright infringement

While Microsoft is taking a new approach on software piracy by focusing on promoting the idea that illicitly copied Windows programs are open invitations to hackers and cybercriminals, the same cannot be invoked by those in the gaming, music and movie industry.

Companies that buy and market gaming apps and those that produce music albums and movies in digital format have been diligently pushing for anti-piracy crusades purportedly to protect the people who work for them – software developers for the former, and artists/talents and production staff for the latter.

While paying the face value of gaming apps or music and movie DVDs is a morally-correct approach to ending copyright infringement, the price for these is often beyond the reach of many people, especially in poor countries  – hence the rampant illegal copying problems.

How the industries concerned will carry on, given the rise of open sourcing and alternative creative content source companies of which Netflix and Spotify are examples that can provide cheaper alternatives, is still a developing story, and one that deserves future space in this column.

For now, we can content ourselves with the thought that digitalization, indeed, is going to be great equalizer of the future.

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