Mark Beckford

The Definition of Success

visionaryI recently read an article titled Negroponte – missionary not manufacturer, in which the author makes the argument that, well, Nicholas Negroponte – founder and Chairman of the One Laptop Per Child project – is a missionary, not a manufacturer. I think this is a very interesting point and caused me to ponder the definition of success.

Negroponte has been pilloried in the press, blogosphere and by analysts around the world, and even to an extent by me. You can see this in a three part blog posting that I wrote that starts here.

While some of the criticism may be valid, if you actually change the perspective of how you view his role … from someone that is trying to manufacture and sell millions of laptops, to someone that has a vision of a computer as a key tool for accelerating learning and technology adoption, then his cause would be seen in a different light. And that is exactly why the world embraced him in 2005 when he first introduced his OLPC project.

In my view, Negroponte’s legacy should be about his role as the pioneer that established the value of computer access to under-privileged students in under-served markets.He essentially ushered in the era of low-cost laptops, or “netbooks.” As general manager of the group at Intel that was responsible for the Classmate PC, I know for a fact that Negroponte’s high profile efforts in 2005 accelerated the development of a comparable product in the Classmate PC. The competitive pressure Negroponte put on us at Intel was huge. And the need for a ultra-low power, low cost chip to power the Classmate was one of the reasons for the creation of the Atom processor, and the subsequent explosion in demand of netbooks.

But netbooks, in general, are not going to schools.

A recent report by DisplaySearch showed that while netbooks have grown exponentionally, OLPC had only 2% and Classmate had only 1% share of netbook market in Q3 2008. Acer and Asus sat at the top with 38% and 30% respectively, far outpacing the two companies that spearheaded this category. OLPC and Classmate are the only two netbooks focused solely on education. I don’t know the breakdown of Acer and Asus’s shipments by end user segment, but I really doubt many are going to schools.

Part of the reason is that in general, developing nations and in under-served markets, 1:1 computing is unrealistic. While providing one laptop for each student is great in principle, it is unrealistic in practice for developing nations that are trying to stretch their budgets. Schools want to maximize their students access to a computer, and the primary way to do that is through a shared computer lab. A computer lab is deployed with desktops, which typically are lower cost than laptops, break down less, and are more secure than laptops which are much easier to steal.

That is why solutions like those from my company, NComputing, (yes, this is a full disclosure – I work for NComputing) are seeing greater success in schools. NComputing provides a software/hardware solution that allows up to 31 users to simultaneously access a low-cost desktop PC or server ($300-$500) with full PC and multi-media functionality at a cost of about $50-70/user (not including monitors, keyboard or mice). In fact, one of the biggest deployments of 1:1 computing in terms of overall penetration of students in a country is Macedonia, which chose NComputing’s thin client solution over competitive offerings.

The reason is simple. At $50-$70/user vs. the $300-$400/user cost of a netbook, you can stretch your education IT budget significantly to cover more students.

Ten years from now, when there will likely be computers in every school in the planet, we can attribute the success to a missionary/visionary that convinced the world that giving kids access to computers is a critical step for personal and economic development. I think that’s a great success. Unfortunately, because those computers will likely not be from OLPC, Mr. Negroponte may not have that same perception of success.