Microsoft sprat to net mackerel
The proposed settlement would extend cheap reconditioned computers and free programs to 12,500 schools with more than 400,000 teachers and seven million pupils.
A hearing into the plan, billed by the software giant as a way to bridge the digital div ide, was held at a Baltimore court on Tuesday. The judge is expected to approve or reject it next month.
Microsoft executives and lawyers suing on behalf of customers said they brokered the deal after concluding that individual payments across the 60 to 100 million consumers eligible for damages would be negligible and costly to administer.
"It is a settlement that avoids long and costly litigation for the company and makes a difference for millions of schoolchildren in some of the most economically disadvantaged schools," said Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer.
The settlement calls for Microsoft to provide up to $250m to establish a charity to help schools buy computers, $160m for technical support, up to $90m for teacher training, and up to 200,000 refurbished computers a year to schools at discounted prices.
But critics accused the firm of cynically using schools to score public relations points and avoid claims totaling more than $10bn.
"Poor urban and rural schools are so desperate for technology that people look for any help," said Delaine Eastin, California's superintendent of public instruction.
"It should be a matter of public policy, not corporate largesse, to get out of paying a bigger fine."
The settlement also allows Microsoft to challenge rival Apple's dominance of the education market, said critics.
"It entrenches them further in schools," said Bob Lande, a law professor at Baltimore University.
Lande also contended that Microsoft's provision for training teachers was inadequate. "It's a rule of thumb that for every dollar you spend on hardware and software you need at least five for training, maintenance and Internet access."
Microsoft denied it was trying to boost market share, stressing that schools would be free to buy non-Microsoft software. "Apple will be working with us to ensure Macintoshes go through the computer- recycling programme too," added Gary East, worldwide general manager of Microsoft's Education Solutions Group.
East said additional funds would be available from the foundation.