updated 1/23/2004 1:42:33 PM ET 2004-01-23T18:42:33

Microsoft Corp. and the United Nations will work together to bring computer technology and literacy to developing countries, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates said Friday.

Microsoft pledged software, computer training and cash to establish computer centers in poor communities, starting with pilot projects in Egypt, Mozambique and Morocco.

The initiative will draw from a $1 billion Microsoft Unlimited Potential fund, which the U.S. software giant launched last year.

The company has already donated nearly $50 million to 45 countries, and Gates said he hoped to "ramp it up" to $200 million a year through the new partnership with the U.N. Development Program. (MSNBC is a Microsoft - NBC joint venture.)

At a news conference at the World Economic Forum, Gates said the computer centers won't be restricted to using Microsoft products.

"There's no exclusivity, but our role is to help with the expertise and curriculum around software that is quite popular and happens to belong to Microsoft," he said.

Many developing countries have been eyeing open source alternatives to Microsoft's Windows operating system, not only because they are cheaper but they also can be more easily adapted to meet local language and cultural needs.

Microsoft has questioned the true cost savings from open source packages like Linux and says it has developed tools for better customization.

Egypt's minister of communication and information technology, Ahmed Mahmoud Nazif, welcomed the help, noting that about 500 to 600 centers have already been set up in Egypt.

"The problem is, it's not just the computers and the phone lines that you need," he said. "It's what's behind that."

Mark Malloch Brown, administrator of the U.N. program, said he hoped the investment would provide poor communities access to information and services and "shortcuts to bypass corrupt governments."

Microsoft and UNDP already have collaborated on a project to provide computer access and training at 16 regional centers in Afghanistan. They hope to train some 12,000 Afghans every year.

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