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Davos Conference Focuses on Digital Divide - 2001-01-30

Delegates to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, have spent considerable time discussing ways to narrow the widening technological gap between rich and poor. This was a key topic at the annual meeting which ended Tuesday.

The World Economic Forum might seem an unlikely place for new high-technology products to be unveiled. But Bill Gates, the head of Microsoft Corporation, beamed like a new father as he extolled to reporters the features of a new wireless computer that he held in the palm of his hand. "Music, photos, video, e-mail, real time communications -- all of those things we think through -- how do we want it to appear on this device, customized for that small screen and yet be a common experience?" Mr. Gates asked.

Forum participants used this new wireless device during the weeklong Davos meeting.

Jazz musician and foundation director Quincy Jones believes such wireless devices can deliver computing power to young people in South Africa.

Mr. Jones is working with the World Economic Forum, AOL Time Warner, and entertainer Oprah Winfrey to get wireless communicators into the homes of young South Africans. "We can't wait two and three years and so forth. Because I've been involved with South Africa for a long time and when you see people living in cardboard boxes, still, with no water and no electricity, it has to happen now," said Mr. Jones. "And thank God last year the meeting here on the digital divide clearly informed us that wireless and fixed wireless will be the answer. Because if you don't have electricity, PC's don't make sense."

Mr. Jones says without quick action to catch up Africa could be left behind in access to new technology. "I'm very concerned about that," he said. "And it is not could be, they are, right now. I mean, we just came back from Hong Kong, and between Asia, North America and Europe, they [Africans] are already behind."

Few participants believe there will rapid progress in closing the technological divide. But several companies in Europe and America unveiled projects to boost education and health projects in poor areas. Small projects, added up, they argued, can make a difference.

Participants leave Davos aware that technology is advancing at a rapid pace. If there is a single message from this year's forum, it is that only enterprises and individuals that are innovative, fast, and flexible will flourish in this dynamic, fast changing world economy.