September 12, 2008

Inauguration Speaker Sought to Spread Laptops

By Timothy C Barmann

Nicholas Negroponte, a former colleague of John Maeda at MIT, is among the founders of the One Laptop Per Child project.

Nicholas Negroponte, the main speaker at John Maeda's inauguration, is a prominent figure in the computer science world, a mentor to the new Rhode Island School of Design president, and the man behind an ambitious plan to deliver inexpensive, but fully functional laptop computers to poor children around the world.

The two men have been colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Negroponte has been a faculty member since 1966.

Maeda, before his RISD appointment, was associate director of research at MIT's Media Lab, a research laboratory Negroponte founded in 1985. The purpose was to draw upon the varied disciplines and industries, including computer science, broadcasting and publishing, to develop interactive systems that have evolved into what's commonly thought of as "multimedia."

Negroponte wrote the forward to Maeda's book, Maeda @ Media, published in 2000.

The two men came from very different backgrounds. Maeda, 42, is the son of Japanese parents who ran a tofu factory in Seattle, where he grew up. He said he worked there every day, sometimes 12 or 14 hours, and has joked that family businesses often equals child labor.

Negroponte, 64, is the son of a Greek ship owner and grew up in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. He has described his background as "privileged," growing up in a family with wealth. He went to Choate Rosemary Hall, a boarding school in Wallingford, Conn.

He is the younger brother of John Negroponte, a longtime diplomat who now serves as the U.S. deputy secretary of state.

Negroponte, is probably most widely known for his efforts to build and distribute a $100 laptop to thousands of poor children around the world as an educational initiative.

In 2003, he and other Media Lab scientists founded the One Laptop Per Child project. The idea was to provide each child a rugged, low- cost computer loaded with educational software that could connect wirelessly to other computers and to the Internet.

Negroponte persuaded several companies to help finance the effort, including chip maker AMD, News Corp., Google, and Red Hat, an operating system distributor.

The first prototypes drew attention because of their unusual source of power. One model sported a yellow hand-crank which required the user to charge up the battery with muscle power. Another model was to generate electricity by pulling a string over and over.

Those "features" were eventually dropped in favor of a traditional AC adapter. The first production model, known as the XO Laptop, was made late last year, and ran on a version of the Linux operating system. Some technology reviewers, including David Pogue of The New York Times, gave the laptop positive reviews for its innovative design.

Between November 2007 and July 2008, the project shipped nearly 400,000 laptops, according to its Web site. Most recently, it provided 100,000 laptops to children in Uruguay.

The project has had its problems. First, the computer could not be produced for $100. The most recent model costs $188, though Negroponte said it will fall to $100 next year.

Several countries which initially agreed to buy the computers didn't follow through. And earlier this year, three key executives resigned from One Laptop Per Child. Some observers suggested the departures were related to Negroponte's decision to include Microsoft's XP operating system on future laptops. That move, some argued, compromised the projects original vision of providing "open source" software that can be freely changed and shared.

In various speeches that are available on YouTube, Negroponte has offered some details about his life story. He is a dyslexic and doesn't like to read books. As a child, instead of reading the classics, he read timetables of the trains that crisscross Europe, a fascination that gave him a strong sense of European geography.

Growing up, he was good in both math and art and he had his mind set on going to Paris to become a sculptor.

His father didn't think that sounded practical. But rather than tell his son to do differently, he made him an offer. If he would go to MIT, where the young Negroponte had already been accepted through the school's early admission program, he would support Nicholas in Paris for the same number of years he went to the Massachusetts school.

Negroponte said that sounded like a good deal, so he headed to Cambridge, Mass., to study architecture, a field he thought best combined his love of art and mathematics.

He never made it to Paris.

It was only after he finished his architecture degree and started graduate school that he fell in love with computers, he said in a 1995 interview.

While at MIT's Media Lab, Negroponte was one of the first investors in Wired magazine. For several years, he wrote a column that appeared on the magazine's last page.

Those columns became the basis of his 1995 best seller, Being Digital, in which Negroponte discusses the inevitable shift to a more digital world, one in which "bits" [digitized information and knowledge] can have more value than "atoms" (physical things like paper books).

Parts of his book were remarkably prescient, given the popularity of Internet-based services of today, such as YouTube and Apple's iTunes music store. He wrote: "The methodical movement of recorded music as pieces of plastic, like the slow human handling of most information in the form of books, magazines, newspapers, and videocassettes, is about to become the instantaneous and inexpensive transfer of electronic data that move at the speed of light."

He also predicted the advent of Tivo-like machines or services: "Gone will be the days of lock-step obedience when everyone stops eating at 8 o'clock to huddle around the screen and be there on time for the bits," he told Wired. "People are going to look back on those days as truly ridiculous."

Negroponte, like Maeda, has long trumpeted the concept of simplicity. He's been critical of what has been called "feature bloat" -- the tendency of gadget makers, computer sellers and software designers to add unneeded features that end up making products more complicated and difficult to use.

"If you look at the PC world, particularly laptops and desktops, the complexity is out of control, the software is unreliable, the software crashes, something that worked last night doesn't work today. That cannot continue, and we have to look for making computers easier to use."

Negroponte [email protected] / (401) 277-7369

Originally published by Timothy C Barmann, Journal Staff Writer.

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