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Playing the market to help the children: Nicholas Negroponte

Posted on the January 21st, 2010

Last week, Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), was a guest on one of the best prime-time, Italian public affairs program, Otto e Mezzo. Negroponte was speaking in English and participating in the round table discussion through a translator.

As he listened politely to his fellow panelists, his blue eyes lively behind his red-framed glasses, the MIT scientist seemed at ease in the Babel-ish scenario.

One of the panelists was a popular Italian TV news host very much of the old school of traditional media (only!). At one point, he voiced the usual lament about the Internet posing a threat to quality journalism. Anyone who has ever listened to Negroponte even briefly might have easily guessed his response. He calmly dismissed such argument as unimportant to him. What is important to him, he said, is getting laptops into the hands of poor children around the world.

And how’s that going?

Not bad, according to a feature about Negroponte online at Forbes Magazine (“The Prophet of Cheap” Andy Greenberg, Dec 31, 2009).  And what’s more, it emerges, Negroponte has learned that he has the power to generate response in the marketplace just by proposing a new innovation.

One Laptop Per Child, in fact, isn’t trying to create a new piece of hardware. It’s trying to create a new model for a nonprofit organization, one that is ready to innovate and disrupt pricing just enough to prod the commercial PC industry into selling cheaper, more accessible products. “We’re not aiming to create a laptop anymore,” says Negroponte. “We want to create downward pressure on the market.”

His planned tablet, which he calls the XO-3, will be developed open source and offered up for duplication to any willing PC maker. Negroponte is working to line up the right players, likely Taiwanese contract manufacturer Quanta and chip company Marvell. With those pieces in place, OLPC will either build and sell the machine itself or, even better, give its blueprints to any PC maker willing to produce and market the device. “The success of this machine will be measured by how many people copy it,” he says.

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