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Spot the difference: it's the all-new black and white Microsoft show

Bill Gates may be spending his billions trying to find a cure for Aids and eradicate poverty in Africa, but the company that turned him into the world's wealthiest man has just suffered a setback to its hard-won, progressive reputation.

The software giant Microsoft has been forced to apologise after employees decided to alter a marketing photo by swapping a black man's face for a white one.

The Seattle-based companyhad used the image of three people sitting around desks in an advertisement on its US website urging customers to "empower your people". But when the same photo was used on the internet site of the firm's Polish business unit, the central character was suddenly white. The problem was he still had a black hand.

"We apologise and are in the process of pulling down the image," Microsoft said in a hastily prepared statement. "We are looking into the details of this situation. Diversity and inclusion are core values and business imperatives of Microsoft, and we apologise for any offence that might have been taken."

The picture's existence was first noticed by Twitter users. Within hours, it had been highlighted by a slew of Silicon Valley commentators, sparking widespread controversy.

"This is a disgrace and Microsoft should be ashamed," said a typical contributor to tech news site CNET. "Why, in this day and age, are we allowing countries, individuals and hate groups to look upon minorities (blacks or any other race) as something bad?"

Marketing experts believe the black man's image was doctored to appeal to Polish consumers. The country boasts a tiny black community, numbering just a few thousand people. At the last census, in 2002, the demographic was too small to even be counted.

The decision to alter the image prompted much speculation and soul-searching about the state of race relations in Poland. "I grew up in Poland, and never saw a black person," said a contributor to the Endgadget technology website. "Somebody out there must have thought the black man did not represent what they wanted to see. Hence, no blacks allowed."

For reasons that remain unclear, the makers of Microsoft's Polish advertisement did not see fit to replace the man on the left of the image, despite the fact that the country's Asian community is also virtually non-existent.

In addition to the inevitable outrage, the affair has also prompted its fair share of amusement. Eagle-eyed experts noticed, for example that the white laptop in front of the Photoshopped man is actually a Macbook, made by Microsoft's arch rival Apple.

Meanwhile the woman to the right of the picture is conducting a Powerpoint presentation – with the help of a computer monitor that has not been plugged into anything at all. Her keyboard cable appears to dangle in thin air.

In a tongue-in-cheek defence of Microsoft, one blogger suggested that the company was attempting to be all things to all people. "The white head and black hand actually symbolise inter-racial harmony. It is supposed to show that a person can be white and black, old and young at the same time."

Race: Poland's great issue

On the surface, race is a non-issue in Poland. The country is one of the most ethnically homogeneous in the world. Of its 38 million people, 97.6 per cent are of Polish origin. The largest single ethnic minority are the Germans (1.3 per cent).

Few dark-skinned people live in Poland and they are rarely seen outside the large towns. Looked at another way, race remains the great, largely unspoken issue in Polish history and therefore Polish politics. Before the 1939-45 war, one in three Poles were of non-Polish origin. One in 10 of them were Jewish. The Nazi Holocaust and Soviet post-war ethnic cleansing, shifting Germans, Ukrainians and Belarussians to their approved homelands, produced the homogenised Poland of today.

On the surface, the Microsoft decision to Photoshop away the black executive was a rational choice. There are no black – and very few non-Polish – executives in Poland. Looked at another way, it has touched a deeply sensitive, but mostly concealed, nerve in Polish society.

John Lichfield