“School is Boring”: Nicholas Negroponte on Education, the XO Laptop, and Life After Intel
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having a tiny keyboard, a slow processor, a cumbersome operating system, and a paucity of documentation. Fair enough—if one is measuring the XO against, say, the MacBook Air. All I can say is that when I was 11 years old—at a time when the TRS-80 and electronic games like Simon and Merlin were the height of computerized sophistication—I would have killed for an XO laptop (oh, and a World Wide Web to connect it to).
And as it turns out, American children will be among those who get to try out the XO. More than 50,000 of the laptops are being shipped to U.S. households as a result of the foundation’s “Give One, Get One” program, a $399 holiday-season promotion. At the same time the foundation is getting ready to launch OLPC America, a Washington, DC-based branch office that will work with state governments to distribute XO laptops to children in U.S. schools.
Though the foundation had originally planned to focus solely on countries where the need for computing technology was greater, Negroponte says there are several reasons to distribute the XO domestically. One is simple patriotism. “It doesn’t make sense to do every country in the world except the United States,” he says. Just as important, Negroponte hopes that more U.S. software developers will get excited about creating applications for the XO if it’s available in U.S. schools. And distributing the XO here, Negroponte says, will also help forestall one awkward and frequent question from foreign governments. “So often I’m asked, ‘If this is such a good idea, why aren’t you doing in the United States?’” Negroponte says. “Now we are.”
But Negroponte gives one more telling reason behind OLPC America: “Intel is not here. I don’t have to fight that war. We can roll out millions here and just not have to be arguing with them.”
It’s the running argument with Intel, unfortunately, that has defined OLPC in the public eye ever since Lesley Stahl’s 60 Minutes piece, “What If Every Child Had a Laptop,” originally broadcast last May. In that piece, Negroponte called Intel “shameless” for allegedly trying to dump Classmate computers at below-cost prices in the same developing nations where OLPC is operating; Barrett, for his part, said Negroponte’s suggestions that Intel was trying to put OLPC out of business were “crazy.”
Neither Bob nor I were eager to dwell on the controversy in our limited time with Negroponte, but we did ask him for his view of core issues in the dispute. The final split, he says, came about after the foundation received one too many reports from its education-ministry contacts in various countries that Intel salespeople had compared the XO unfavorably to Intel’s own Classmate computer.
“It was chronic, it wasn’t just episodic,” says Negroponte. “Very often, I would get somebody from a government who said, ‘You know, this has just happened, but you can’t disclose my name.’ Finally we got a couple of instances really thoroughly documented. And then [Intel] said, ‘Oh, yes, we’ll correct our ways.’ But it just didn’t happen.”
Intel and the foundation had attempted to patch things up; Intel joined OLPC’s board last summer and donated several million dollars, along with technical expertise, and as 2007 waned, OLPC was preparing to unveil a version of the XO containing a low-power Intel chip, rather than the AMD chip inside the production models.
But in December, more allegations surfaced of aggressive tactics on the part of Intel salespeople. Negroponte says he asked Intel to leave the foundation, and that the two organizations were working on a joint announcement of the split, when Intel went behind OLPC’s back with its own announcement on January 3. That announcement focused on Negroponte’s alleged demand that Intel stop selling the Classmate and solely support the XO. In fact, says Negroponte, “We weren’t asking them to pull the plug….The stuff [saying] that they quit, that we didn’t want them to support anybody else, that’s rubbish.” (For more of the details of the final meltdown, see two New York Times stories from January 4 and January 5, which “got every single thing right, to the decimal point,” according to Negroponte.)
In the end, Negroponte says Intel isn’t really out to undermine OLPC; he believes the foundation is merely an unfortunate bystander in a larger conflict between Intel and its arch-enemy, AMD. “OLPC is caught in a proxy war between AMD and Intel that has nothing to do with us,” he says. “It has to do with not allowing AMD to have a beachhead in those countries, period. Okay? Instead of being happy with their 85 percent of the market, or whatever the number is, and have it be a growing market….there is this genetic thing that is just to sell laptops and destroy your competitors.”
OLPC won’t be a direct competitor for Intel in the United States, which is why Negroponte feels safe selling XOs here. But obviously, he’ll have to do it without help from Intel, which the foundation had previously been counting on for sales and marketing assistance. The slack is being taken up by Brightstar, a Miami-based mobile device manufacturer and distributor that was already handling sales and distribution for the Give One, Get One program.
Negroponte freely admits that OLPC isn’t a hardware company, and doesn’t have the expertise needed to distribute millions of laptops to the developing world. OLPC has been working outside the computer-industry establishment, “and now it has to really deliver the ideas and the concepts and the scale,” he says. “And that’s a real transition for us. Most of the people in these offices are not qualified by their experience to make that transition. We’re good at new ideas and being disruptive and so on and so forth. So that’s one of the reasons we shifted basically all of sales and marketing to Miami. And OLPC America…is also run by people who actually wear suits, and know that world, whether it’s the political world or the business world, versus us trying to go from short pants to long pants.”
Still, the naiveté of OLPC’s core crew has been a valuable asset as well, according to Negroponte. “It’s a little bit like building your first house. If you knew what you were getting into, you would never do it….[But] you go into it and I think that’s very important, because that’s how new ideas come about.”