Nicholas Negroponte: The Interview

1/28/08Follow @wroush

On January 16, Bob and I had the opportunity to interview Nicholas Negroponte, founder and chairman of the One Laptop Per Child Foundation, at the organization’s Kendall Square headquarters. Negroponte is on leave from MIT, where he joined the faculty in 1966 and co-founded the MIT Media Lab in 1980. We had a wide-ranging conversation covering both the recent collapse of the foundation’s relationship with Intel and Negroponte’s vision for changing education in poor, rural, and remote areas of the world by giving children the means to create, collaborate, and communicate digitally.

We published my overview of the conversation last week, but the interview itself still makes fascinating reading, so we’re presenting it here, in mostly unedited form. (We’ve cut a bit for length.)

Xconomy: What have the last couple of months been like for you here at the foundation?

Nicholas Negroponte: Something I didn’t expect…is that before the Intel incident we were a little bit untouchable. If you criticized us it was like criticizing motherhood. So people who had reservations kept them to themselves. Then when the Intel thing happened it unleashed a pent-up disgruntled voice—not disgruntled about the Intel thing, but [about the fact] that the laptop didn’t run Office or it didn’t work for big fat fingers or it didn’t do certain things. Some of those came out of the woodwork. Which created a simultaneous cacophony of people saying, “Ah, well, you see Intel is pulling out because they’re really losers.” Which is okay too. If you can’t take the heat you shouldn’t be in the kitchen.

We’re talking to several groups—and I really can’t identify them—about how to pick up some of the things that Intel was supposed to be doing. But you never want anybody to walk. That’s never a commendable thing, and the fact that we couldn’t make it work with Intel reflects badly on both sides.

X: What kinds of things were they supposed to be doing? Obviously, you did find a low-power chip, from AMD.

NN: We’ve had a low-power chip. We were looking to [Intel] more in terms of the distribution—what would be called sales and marketing in a profit-making entity, and we looked to them because they had such a big network worldwide in most countries and they have a stated claim of being interested in education. So it seemed like the obvious thing to do, in spite of all their shenanigans.

But I don’t think that’s the substance of the story. I think the real story is that OLPC has been, if you will, a terrorist group, up until recently, and now it has to really deliver the ideas and the concepts and the scale. And that’s a real transition for us. Most of the people in these offices, in fact most of the people you’ll be meeting today, 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 what we would be calling sales and marketing to Miami. They are people who have lots of experience doing that sort of thing and the whole logistic side, basically from the end of the factory to the schoolroom door. Brightstar has picked all of that. And OLPC America, which is just in formation, based in Washington DC, is a locus of activity. Those are run by people who actually wear suits, and know that world, whether it’s the political world or the business world. That’s a big change, versus us trying to go from short pants to long pants.

X: I think that’s one of the criticisms we’ve heard– that “Oh, these guys don’t really know the real business world.”

NN: We don’t!

X: And you never made any bones about that. It wasn’t the time for that.

NN: Exactly. Ignorance is bliss. Because when you do know those things, you really wouldn’t dare to do some of this stuff. It’s a little bit like building your first house. If you knew what you were getting into, you would never do it.

X: Nobody wants to do it again.

NN: A lot of people don’t. You go into it and I think that’s very important because that’s how new ideas come about.

X: Not to dwell on the past, but just to kind of get it all swept up neatly—You were hoping to depend on Intel as the sales and marketing partner. But at a certain point you must have realized that this was not going to work out. Did they ever indicate to you that they would actually try and sell the two products on their merits? Did it turn out that they were being more aggressive about the Classmate than you expected?

NN: There is no reason for them to be in the Classmate business, other than to have a reference design. Rolls Royce doesn’t make airplanes. They make engines. The margins on this kind of thing are very, very low—maybe even … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • http://www.VerbatimIT.com VerbatimIT

    Wade, I have a kind anecdote to share re: Nicholas Negroponte. Can you reach me?
    Alan Kelly

  • http://gforsythe.net Giulia Forsythe

    I really want to be a part of the educational community that starts developing applications to help children (all children) to learn. I am a qualified teacher, learning technology developer, university staff member, and parent of an 8 year old who was eagerly awaiting her (only) Christmas present from her parents- an xo laptop.
    I ordered my xo laptop on November 14 and now the news is that I won’t even receive it until April 2008.
    It’s hard to get the community developing, testing and improving the platform when olpc marginalizes them by not even providing communication, a receipt, let alone the machine. I don’t want olpc to be more business-like, but when others who ordered after us are playing around with their machines, I can’t help feel very frustrated.