R-E-S-P-E-C-T: OLPC Negroponte Edition

On September 4, 1995, Larry Ellison introduced the idea of an inexpensive, thin client appliance he called the Network Computer. In 1996 he launched the first Network Computer, with models as low as $300, thus fulfilling his earlier promise. The product was met with a universal, deafening yawn from the buying public and slowly faded from view. Ellison saw the still born product as a success. His idea of a sub thousand dollar computer was so strong, the entire computer industry seized the opportunity and collectively lowered the price of entry level machines, and created dedicated devices like Blackberrys, thereby growing a new market. He was not the one to make the market but the market was made. The statement sounded arrogant and a bit crazy, until it happened again.

Nicholas Negroponte spent the last three years in hell, doing something he really didn't have to do. He is the son of Greek shipping magnate for god's sake. He could just retire as the quirky, genius founder of the MIT Media Lab and live happily ever after. Instead, he did something great. Negroponte wrote many columns and articles about a problem, the digital divide. Most of the planet is un wired, and falling behind, creating a social, moral and economic catastrophe. Once he told us about the issue, he could have stopped there, Al Gore got a Nobel Prize for drawing attention to a critical issue, but he did not. He did something about it. In November 2005 he announced he would build a $100 laptop for the world. The laptop would address many of the issues touched on by Negroponte in the early days of his Wired Magazine column. Issues like lack of power - it has a crank generator, lack of wired infrastructure - it builds a mesh network with other OLPCs and even be durable enough for children. Production began 2 years later in November 2007. The press was happy to point out the price was $200, rather than $100 and production did not ramp up as quickly as had been announced. Well MSM, I'm sorry we only cured the cancer and the athlete's foot remained. This is an amazing accomplishment for any startup.

During the interim period Negroponte tirelessly traveled the world promoting the OLPC and trying to get countries to sign up to use the computer. He took no compensation during this period. He met with some success, some failure and surprisingly, competition. No major computer hardware company ever saw Cambodian, South American or African schools as a market growth opportunity, until Negroponte pointed it out. As a result of his identification of the market and articulation of a pathway, Intel entered with the Classmate, and other companies have announced computers at competitive price points. This is where the PR campaign broke down.

Rather than welcoming the companies to the mission and welcoming the other companies, Negroponte viewed them as predators. He could believe in his heart of hearts the OLPC is the best solution and the Intel offering will establish a legacy infrastructure which will harm the developing world. He could believe Intel and the others are merely trying to enter the markets to later take advantage of them. He could just be overly sensitive from the exhaustion arising from too much traveling. Regardless of the reason, it is time to end the battle.

The press is reporting some delays in the manufacture of the OLPC and other issues within the company. Negroponte recently stepped announced a search for a CEO. No one ever said he was an operator. Even he said he is not an operator. Visionaries rarely are. I understand the newsworthiness of underlying OLPC story, and the reasons it is reported as it is, but the guy accomplished an awful lot in the past three years and should be recognized for it. He drove the world to recognize a need and act on it. Even if industry is acting against him. Ultimately, because of him, the OLPC mission stated below, will be fulfilled:

"OLPC is not, at heart, a technology program, nor is the XO a production any conventional sense of the word. OLPC is a non-profit organization providing a means to an end—an end that sees children in even the most remote regions of the globe being given the opportunity to tap into their own potential, to be exposed to a whole world of ideas, and to contribute to a more productive and saner world community.

Bravo Nicholas Negroponte.


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