Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) has been increasingly focusing on solving problems in the developing world in order to create a pipeline of future customers.
The company has pushed Windows Phone in emerging markets and now has plans, according to a leak reported on by NBC News, to bring "hassle-Free Internet access around the world." A website for the new service briefly went live and was noticed by a Twitter user who brought it to the attention of the news site.
Microsoft has said very little about the yet-to-launch offering, which looks like a successor or companion product to Skype Wi-Fi, a service which lets people use Skype credits to pay for Internet hotspots around the world. It did, however, confirm its existence.
"We can confirm that we are working on a new service, called Microsoft Wi-Fi, that will bring hassle-free WiFi to millions. We look forward to sharing additional detail when available," the company told NBC News in a statement.
What do we know?
Before the site was taken down VentureBeat was able to grab some screenshots which offer some insight into what Microsoft is planning. The first thing that's very clear if that the new Wi-Fi service will not be limited to people using Windows. It will be platform agnostic and work with Android and Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) iOS as well.
The screenshot contained the following text:
Don't waste time filling forms with personal information or managing different carriers to get connected. Sign in once and you are done: you will automatically be connected to a vast range of WiFi providers around the world.
To find a Wi-Fi hotspot, users will check the app's "interactive map." In a broad sense, Microsoft WiFi is a variant on Skype WiFi, which sells pay-as-you go access on over two million hotspots around the world. Both products aim to take the clunky credit card payment process out of using hotspots and replace it with something seamless.
The plan for Microsoft WiFi, at least according to the site at the time of the leak, appears to be a much bigger play as it will offer 10 million Wi-Fi hotspots in 130 countries. The product won't be widely available at first, it will be rolled out to certain existing Microsoft customers and others by invitation, according to VentureBeat.
- Active Skype WiFi subscribers (through the Microsoft Work & Play Bundle or the Surface 2 + Skype WiFi Bundle)
- Employees of organizations with Microsoft Office 365 for Enterprise
- Customers who received a special Wi-Fi offer from Microsoft
It's a bold step-up of the Skype WiFi model and rolling out new products slowly has become common recently with Microsoft treading carefully rather than pushing out product to the world in one day.
Why is Microsoft doing this?
At first Microsoft WiFi will simply help the company's existing customers stay connected around the world with less effort. In the long-run Microsoft WiFi could become a less altruistic take on Facebook's (NASDAQ:FB) efforts to bring the Internet -- or some limited for of it -- to the developing world.
If Microsoft wants to sell Surface and Windows phones in these markets, it needs to find a way to connect those devices in markets that are under-served by the Internet. A report from the United Nations found that by the end of 2014 78% of people in developed countries are expected to have access to the Internet, but that number drops to 32% in the developing world.
Offering increased access to Wi-Fi in an easy, inexpensive, pay-as-you-go format could help bring some access to people without it. Of course, Wi-Fi won't exist in completely Internet-free markets, but in places with some service where many people can't get or can't afford home access, Microsoft WiFi could help.
Bundling this new product with phones and tablets should increase the company's potential user base while accomplishing a little good along the way. It's a sensible plan, but getting people to adopt it will take time. Microsoft needs to not only formally launch the service, but embed or install it on devices.
This could be a selling point in parts of the world where Internet -- especially home-based service -- is sparse. If Microsoft makes it easy-to-use, then it could facilitate access to underserved populations while making it easier to stay connected for its existing customer base.