Nicolas Negroponte’s difference engine

One_laptop_per_child_olpc Now that I have placed my order, I learn that the OLPC is in trouble, big trouble.  Nicholas Negroponte’s 3rd world computer is under attack.

OLPC was purported to have commitments from Nigeria, Brazil, Argentina, and Thailand to buy 1 million computers each.  A published report says Libya was going to buy 1.2 million computers.  The Taiwanese manufacturer was told to expect orders of 5 to 8 million. That’s all over now.

Now, there is competition in the marketplace.  Now, Nigeria is in line to buy  "Classmate" computers from Intel. 

Now, there’s bad-mouthing from rival C-Suites.  The Intel Chairman called the OLPC computer a "gadget."  And Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft, let fly with this:

Geez, get a decent computer where you can actually read the text and you are not sitting there cranking the thing while you’re trying to type.

This is brave talk for a guy who hasn’t had an idea since the 20th century.  Microsoft is Japan circa 1950, an imitator incapable of innovation that matters.  (And if you don’t believe me, I have a Zune I’d like to sell you.) 

Here’s the thing in a nut shell: Negroponte’s One Computer Per Child project looked like a brilliant, necessary idea in 2005.  Now it’s a project in shambles.

Right?  Wrong.  We could argue that Intel and Microsoft are rushing this market precisely because they were terrified that the first one in could own it.  And this is a way of saying that Negroponte almost certainly moved up the Intel and Microsoft participation by, what?, a couple of years.  Now we have a robust market, with real choices, competitors with deep pockets, momentum, urgency; not philanthropy, but that beast called capitalism.

And what’s that worth?  To move everything up by a couple of years? Naturally, this is one of those calculations that don’t calculate very well.  But at a minimum we would want to factor in 

Kids who:

get on line
get knowledge
make knowledge
distribute knowledge
make friends
join networks
build networks
teach themselves to read
master math
become more cosmopolitan
learn to think clearly
learn to solve problems
learn to teach
learn to lead
learn to enterprise
learn to spot zealotry and jingoism
learn to refuse prejudice and violence
create value for their families, communities, country, the human community

x some millions

x ~2 years

Damn.  Who called the computer a difference engine?  Negroponte has created a lot of difference. 

Does he get thanked?  No, he gets dissed and displaced.  He pays yet another penalty of taking the lead.  He is paying for making a market where once there was none.  Someday we’ll come to our senses.  Negroponte will get his Nobel Peace Prize.  In the meantime, this must really suck. 

References

Markoff, John.  2004.  Silicon Valley Seeks Peace in War With Microsoft.  New York Times.  April 4, 2004.  here

Stecklow, Steve and James Bandler.  2007.  A Little Laptop With Big Ambitions: How a Computer for the Poor Got Stomped by Tech Giants. Wall Street Journal.  November 24-25, 2007.  here.

Postscript:

For more details on the One Laptop Per Child "Give One, Get One" program, go here

7 thoughts on “Nicolas Negroponte’s difference engine”

  1. Since the announcement of the availability of the laptop, I have been looking on with much interest, trying to convince myself (and my wife) that this is a worthwhile charity to be giving to, while also receiving a novel and historic product. This post might help me finally decide what to do this holiday season. Thanks, Grant.

  2. It’s sad to see something that was supposedly all about giving turn into a competition of sorts. Bad-mouthing and confusion really hurts the cause. Big names and big companies should just focus on the real reason for the campaign and not their own blistered egos.

  3. It’s sad to see something that was supposedly all about giving turn into a competition of sorts. Bad-mouthing and confusion really hurts the cause. Big names and big companies should just focus on the real reason for the campaign and not their own blistered egos.

  4. Re: “He pays yet another penalty of taking the lead. He is paying for making a market where once there was none.”

    Negropante didn’t “take the lead”; he saw the obvious point that Moore’s law was taking us to, and tried to make a big production out of getting in front of the parade and pretending that he was leading it.

    In fact, 20 years ago it was clear that computers would someday hit $100 each.

    I’ll go on record as saying that devices with the power of a full server rack of multi-core blade servers will someday fit in a shirt pocket, sell for $10, and be in use in even the poorest countries.

    By saying that, I’m not a visionary – I’m just echoing the conventional wisdom.

    What Negroponte did was to pretend. He pretended that the $100 laptop wasn’t going to happen without him. He stood up and said “I have a dream – a dream of a $100 laptop! I can make it come true through force of will! …but first, I need a few thousand fawning press features, and meetings with lots of very famous and powerful people”.

    I’d like to try the same thing.

    “I have a dream that, despite the sun having gone down today, it will rise again tomorrow. All I need to make it come true is a meeting with the Dali Lama, Al Gore, and the presidents of the 10 largest charities…”.

    The fact that Negroponte is upset with “competition”, instead of welcoming other people working to achieve the same thing tells you what you need to know.

  5. I’m reminded of Clay Christensen’s “The Innovator’s Dilemma” — namely, that innovation usually happens on a feature or dimension that the market does not currently value. It’s usually the later entrants into the market who actually capitalize on it.

  6. This is brave talk for a guy who hasn’t had an idea since the 20th century. Microsoft is Japan circa 1950, an imitator incapable of innovation that matters.

    Lovely point.

    Mobile phone telephony is rapidly turning into a competitor for a lot of what is need to bridge the digital divide. I say get whatever we can into the hands of the poor and the disenfranchised. And lets do it quick.

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