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 negative. And if you sold million and millions of [Classmates] the average margins would start to go way down, and that’s one of the things the analysts on Wall Street really don’t like. It just makes so much more sense to sell [processors] to us at your normal margin per processor and let us sell our laptop at no margin, and you win big.

In the end, we said “You’ve got to at least show some plan that you’re going to get out of building airplanes.” And they said, “You can’t believe that one size fits all,” and I said “No, of course not, there are many kinds of airplanes. But you shouldn’t be building them.”

X: Intel has said that one reason they decided they had to stay in this Classmate business was that they were already working with so many local manufacturers, they felt like they couldn’t pull the plug.

NN: We weren’t asking them to pull the plug. We never asked them to pull that plug. So when they ran off to sort of announce things, then you’ve got the stuff that they quit, that we didn’t want them to support anybody else, that’s rubbish. We may be hard to deal with, but we’re not crazy.

X: John Markoff said in his New York Times pieces that it was the lack of follow-through on Intel’s part on their agreement to back off on the really aggressive sales and marketing effort, even telling people in education ministries that the XO wasn’t going to work, that brought about the final split.

NN: Markoff got every single thing right, to the decimal point. It was chronic, it wasn’t just episodic. Something would happen one month and then something else. And 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, basically transcripts, and then they said, “Oh yes, we’ll correct our ways.” But you know, it just didn’t happen. And it’s unfortunate.

X: What do you think is really going on at the core there? Are they such a genetically aggressive sales organization that they can’t help it? Or are they fundamentally bothered by the idea of a no-margin laptop, and they can’t let that happen?

NN: It’s two things. One you haven’t mentioned is probably the prime one, and that is that OLPC is caught in a proxy war between AMD and Intel that has nothing to do with us. It has to do with not allowing AMD to have a beachhead in those countries, period. Okay? And even though AMD has a tiny piece of the market—it’s some number like 15 percent—they are so focused on that 15 percent as a company. Instead of being happy with their 85 percent of the market, or whatever their number is, such a big piece, and have it be a growing market, they are really, really determined to—well, there is this genetic thing that is just to sell laptops and to destroy your competitors.

X: It seems natural for you now to go to AMD.

NN: We have. AMD has been a partner since day one. If you use time as the measure as well as money, they are our biggest sponsor.

X: Talking about the future—you’ve said it’s not about selling laptops.

NN: It’s not about selling laptops. It’s about leveraging the children themselves. Because if you look at the developing world, in general, education is more disciplinarian, more rote, more exam and test oriented, than it is in this country, or Europe or Korea or Japan. And if you look at education in the rural parts of the developing world it is even more, almost, totalitarian in the way schools are run. And one of the phenomena which just proves this, is if you go into a first grade class—especially at the beginning of whatever their academic year is—you see the kids with big, bright eyes. They are like sponges. By the third or fourth grade, their heads are down, they are just waiting to get out of the classroom.

Most people think that kids drop out of school in the developing world to go to work and earn money for their family or to work in the fields or to take care of the siblings or something like that. In fact, that happens—but the primary reason is that school is boring. It’s not relevant.

And so, to just bring IT into education really is just an automation of a system that, even if it works perfectly, with the best schools, the best teachers, the best facilities, all day lots of stuff, only has kids in the developing world in class for 13 hours a week. This is why we make it a requirement that the kids take the laptops home, that they own the laptops. It seems onerous to some countries, but if they don’t want the kids to own the laptop, we won’t do business with them.

X: Because you want to leverage the other 50 hours a week, or whatever it is.

NN: It’s even more than that. Because you want to have a seamlessness—not “this is education” and “this is the rest of life.” In the state of Maine, where they ran a laptop program for three or four years starting in 2001, there was software that swept the laptops every night. You couldn’t put music on them, you couldn’t use it everywhere you go. If you interview the kids in the state of Maine, they’ll say “Oh, I have another computer at home. This is the school computer.” The whole thing was very, very different. These kids—they sleep with [their XO laptops], they polish them. They don’t break. And if they break, they get together to fix them. There are laptop hospitals. Its’ a very, very different attitude and that’s what you want to change, not just selling laptops into an “education system.”

X: Do you ever find yourself being viewed with suspicion by some of the education authorities? I mean, what happens if these kids actually do get hold of these laptops and it opens up this whole world of unregulated learning?

NN: The answer is all the time. Literally all the time. Even if people don’t say it, it’s in the back of their minds. But you find in the countries that are the most poor, Rwanda for example, where there are just so many kids not in school, that they just can’t incrementally fix it, they’ve got to do something pretty bold. In countries like Singapore, Korea, so on, the system seems to be working, so they are not going to make too many changes. The bold moves will probably come from the poor countries who have to try things that are very different. You find more instances in those countries where the minister says “Yes, let’s try it.”

X: In your heart, what’s your biggest unfulfilled wish right now with regard to One Laptop Per Child project? Do you feel like you have a good platform and the main job now is to get it out there?

NN: I think there is a pretty good platform. Now one needs to get it out and get enough critical mass for people who are making content and so on and so forth. So I think we are at the point where, yes, we can come out with a second generation, we can come out with new releases, we can get more software put on it, but if you are really asking about my attention for the next six months, it is a numbers game. You want some critical mass.

If you had spoken to me six months ago, even, I would never have told you that there’d be 50,000 [XO] laptops at this moment in the United States [through the Give One, Get One program], but there are. And we don’t have call centers here. What’s happened is the community is supporting them. A whole community is building up around them.

X: And what’s OLPC America about?

NN: That’s totally different. It’s to look at bringing it to kids in the United States, particularly in the poorest parts, whether it’s inner cities or parts of the United States that are really rural and remote. That’s what it’s about.

X: That was not part of your original vision. So what happened to drive that?

NN: It happened for three reasons. Two very noble, one less noble. The first is just simply patriotic. It doesn’t make sense to do every country in the world except the United States. So there’s that reason, which is perfectly noble. And the second one is that by having critical mass, you get larger numbers and…more critical mass in general, so that software developers are making stuff for kids in this country. There is the third reason which is not noble at all, which is that 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. Then there’s a fourth reason which is more a footnote and that is, so often I’m asked, “If this is such a good idea, why aren’t you doing in the United States?” Now we are.

Wade Roush is Chief Correspondent and Editor At Large at Xconomy. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. 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.