OLPC's Negroponte: A new "constructionist" medium needed for tablets

"There's an interesting point in history for us. All we have to do is threaten to build the tablet and that may be enough," said One Laptop Per Child founder Nicholas Negroponte.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

One Laptop Per Child founder Nicholas Negroponte said his effort is at an interesting juncture. Previously, the OLPC had to make a laptop and take it to Rwanda and other places because the private sector wouldn't go there.

Today, the OLPC is more of a prodding organization. Negroponte seemed to imply that its latest tablet design may never be built---at least by the OLPC.

"There's an interesting point in history for us. All we have to do is threaten to build the tablet and that may be enough. There's a new regime of designing things people will copy instead of doing ourselves," said Negroponte, speaking at GigaOm's Mobilize conference in San Francisco.

That's a refreshing view given the hubbub between companies like Intel, Microsoft and OLPC in the early days.

Weili Dai, co-founder of Marvell, seems to be lining her company up as foot soldier to Negroponte's plans. She said Marvell is actively designing tablets. Indeed, Marvell had a handful of prototypes at the conference running Android. They were a little clunky, but they weren't finished. And if Marvell can hit a $99 price point, it will play well in the education market.

Earlier this week, Marvell launched Mobylize.org, an effort to revamp education via technology. Dai said there are "huge opportunities" to create an ecosystem between multiple devices to better communities. The goal: Get kids thinking about being entrepreneurs earlier.

To say Negroponte was bullish on tablets was an understatement. Negroponte was kicking physical books every change he got. Why? They're too expensive, take up too much space and are too hard to update for the developing world. "Turning pages. How ridiculous is that?" asked Negroponte.

"There's no way a paper book is going to work," said Negroponte. "Physical books are a luxury." Shipping costs into developing markets. "Books are so much better on a tablet. How can you make tablets a constructionist medium," he said. "Have to get kids to use them to make things."

Other key needs on the tablet front:

  • Make it unbreakable.
  • Portrait replaces landscape.
  • Transflective will emerge.
  • Design matters.

Among other notable points:

  • Tablets are all about consumption, said Negroponte. "You could say that Apple makes peripherals for iTunes," he said. In a developing world and educational environments, you need haptics and ways to make tablets constructive. "You can't turn these kids into couch potatoes," he said. "You learn by making."
  • Areas such as China and India will contribute to the OLPC vision.
  • Cloud computing won't fly where OLPC plays. "Clouds are fine for us, but there are no clouds over Ethiopia, Rwanda and Gaza," he said.
  • Laptops transformed learning. The forgotten part of the OLPC project is that they come loaded with dictionaries and books.

Related: The OLPC's real importance is as a conversation starter

Editorial standards