NECC Conference Observation: Negroponte Rocks!


I’ll say it again, Nicholas Negroponte rocks!
He was the keynote speaker on the second day of the NECC conference I’m attending here in San Diego. Having heard about the MIT Media Lab for years since my MA from Pepperdine in 2002 and then visiting MIT the past two Novembers, I was aware of this project to create a $100 laptop (OLPC) and saw pictures of the little device he was promoting, but I never really got what it all meant. And based on the press I’d heard, even my trusted podcasts from TWIT to Your Mac Life, it was pretty clear that no one seemed to be getting it either.

True to form, the press and competing programs focused on the hardware and commented nary little on the purpose behind the design. Silly engineer-heads! Over a number of years Negroponte had been working in 3rd world regions and has developed a plan to leapfrog these regions into the “Internet” era with as little of the infrastructures required by typical Western consumer computer strategies. Getting these funny looking computing device into the hands of every single child in the world is the crux of that plan.

Early Rev. Orange Machine
Early Rev. Orange Machine

Negroponte scored points with the keynote audience by quipping that in view of the continual negative comments he’s getting from Bill Gates and Intel, he must be doing something right. He noted that based on Moore’s Law (that computing power would double roughly every 18 months), that computers should already be affordable to the 3rd world but that there is so much bloat in hardware and software which artificially maintains the current price point so that technology vendors can maintain their profit margins. According to Negroponte a full half of the price of the computer comes from marketing and PR. The next largest expense in laptops comes their LCDs. Negroponte said that the scale of this project is so important to it’s success. He joked that vendors weren’t interested to talking to him about the the dual-mode design he was interested in until they found out that he was planning on producing hundreds of thousands of devices (”scale, it’s all about scale”).

Orange Rev. at NECC
Orange Rev. at NECC

Besides bringing the price down in the LCD, he’s also gone with Open Source software for the Operating System and applications (which may also explain why Bill is so pained…. all those unpurchased copies of XP and office!). He’s also gone with an extremely low powered architecture (from chipmaker AMD, gee, that explains Intel’s attitude about this project, good thing they didn’t go with a PowerPC chip). He’s balancing performance and a unique ability to re-charge the battery with a hand-crank (originally attached to the device, but more recently moved to the power-brick to reduce wear and tear on the device). The device is also meant to be a network machine using a mesh-networking design so that these little machines are able to share memory resources making a hard-disk less necessary. Also, as long as one device (A) is within wireless distance from the hardwire connection to the Internet, any device (B) able to connect to device A can connect to the Internet and share its connection with any device (C…) that can connect to it (creating a working ad-hoc network). Thus, from the ground up these little machines are designed to fulfill the promises that technology has been making for decades, countermanding all of the commercial crap that has been artificially added on that tends to make computers just too hard to bother with. Mr. Negroponte definitely rocks!

Click here for my flickr pix of the keynote. Third image above and additional flickr pix of the conference are courtesy NECC2006 flickr group. JBB