“School is Boring”: Nicholas Negroponte on Education, the XO Laptop, and Life After Intel

One day in early November, the first batch of mass-produced XO laptops—the little green-and-white machines designed by the One Laptop Per Child Foundation (OLPC) to revolutionize education in the IT-starved developing world—rolled off an assembly line in Changshu, China.

Coming less than three years after the launch of the so-called “$100 laptop” effort by former MIT Media Lab director Nicholas Negroponte, the manufacturing milestone was cause for some back-slapping within OLPC, and might have been expected to quell a few of the organization’s outside critics.

But instead, the foundation has spent the last few months bogged down in bad publicity. It started with a Wall Street Journal article that concluded Negroponte’s project had been “derailed” by canceled orders, cost overruns, and competition with established hardware and software companies. Then came a round of extraordinarily bitter and public infighting between OLPC and Intel, the foundation’s largest monetary supporter and the company Negroponte had hoped to lean on for help promoting and distributing the XO around the world. A fragile rapprochement between the two organizations, negotiated last summer after Intel chairman Craig Barrett traded barbs in a 60 Minutes segment, fell apart completely on January 3 with Intel’s stormy departure from the OLPC board.

Intel and OLPC have given conflicting accounts of the final dispute: the giant chipmaker says Negroponte was trying to strong-arm the company into abandoning its low-cost Classmate laptop (an XO competitor), while Negroponte says Intel wouldn’t stop bad-mouthing the XO to education ministries in OLPC’s target countries.

Whatever the case, Negroponte is now working to shift the focus away from past controversies and onto the foundation’s future, especially its educational mission. While getting the newly minted XOs into the hands of children is obviously a key step, Negroponte talks even more about the laptop’s potential to upend the way kids learn in developing countries where schoolwork is a dull, regimented affair.

“It’s not about selling laptops,” Negroponte told Bob and me when we visited OLPC at its Cambridge, MA, headquarters one day last week. “It’s about leveraging the children themselves”—meaning, putting better tools for exploration and collaboration into their hands, and encouraging them to play with these tools in ways that will (in theory, at least) rewrite the old rules 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,” Negroponte says. “That happens—but the primary reason is that school is boring. It’s not relevant.” He believes the XO laptop is versatile enough to help change that.

A Day at the OLPC OfficeAnd he could be right. On the day Bob and I visited, the foundation’s Kendall Square offices were noisily overflowing with engineers and educators participating in one of its regular learning workshops. Negroponte and the other OLPC managers we were scheduled to see—software president Walter Bender and chief learning architect David Cavallo, of whom more later—were being pulled in and out of meetings, and during one break between interviews, I was given an XO to play with. Once I figured out how to open it (you have to flip up the green rabbit-ear Wi-Fi antennas first), I was impressed to see how much care has gone into the device’s physical construction (it’s unexpectedly solid, for a $175 gadget) as well as its top-level user interface and the individual programs loaded into its memory (which is comprised of a 1-gigabyte, solid-state Flash chip—the XO has no hard drive).

Briefly put, I discovered that the Linux-based XO is loaded with enough open-source programming, communication, and content-creation and editing tools to make any bright young child into a budding journalist, musician, filmmaker, scientist, software engineer, or (as some governments may fear) revolutionary. Some critics—notably, The Economist, in a frosty January 4 review—have derided the XO for 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.”

Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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2 responses to ““School is Boring”: Nicholas Negroponte on Education, the XO Laptop, and Life After Intel”

  1. VerbatimIT says:

    Compassionate though I feel toward OLPC my views don’t reach he (Negroponte) in a position of influence. I seek an ear (eye) to pose views and opinions.

  2. i am intreasted in xoxo laptop for chidren,there are lots of childern in my country who don’t have acess to computer because it is expensive and complicated,and this makes them backward in civilization,i don’t mind taking up this initiative in introducing this product to schools,this will help in educating and also bring development to my country,childern will be able have a knowledge of computer in thier tender ages.please i want this issue to be considered,because will make our world a better place.as u know our childern are our pride of tomorrow,so we have to give them the best.
    Thanking you in anticipation