Mark Beckford

Will the next “thought leader” please stand up? – Part 1

Four years ago, Nicholas Negroponte announced the One Laptop per Child initiative and the $100 laptop to much fan-fare at Davos in Switzerland. He captured the imaginations of world leaders with promises of ultra-affordable computing for school children around the world. He talked about changing the way children learn, improving their education and ultimately accelerating their access to the knowledge economy by deploying hundreds of millions of laptops.

That same year, Intel’s nemesis, AMD, launched the 50×15 program with the goal of increasing internet access to 50% of the world’s population by the year 2015. Unlike with Negroponte’s announcement, AMD launched their program with an actual existing product, the Personal Internet Communicator (PIC).

These announcements put Intel, my employer at the time, on notice. The press from these two initiatives got under the skin of the the company’s executives. The typical complaint was “We invest millions in emerging markets, and ship millions of low-cost PC’s, but we we get no recognition from it.” Intel’s “thought leadership” effort was thus born. I was asked to pull a strategy and plan together to help Intel gain the perceived leadership position in bringing computing and internet access to under-served markets that currently don’t have access.

We launched the World Ahead program in 2006 with the stated goal of giving one billion new users access to affordable, broadband computing. The three supporting pillars were accessibility (affordable computers), connectivity (broadband access), and education (training and digital content). These pillars were supported by the introduction of the unique computing platforms (e.g. the Classmate PC), broadband initiatives (Wimax deployments) and an expansion of Intel’s Teach to the Future training program to an additional 8 million teachers emerging markets. The press we recieved from the launch was tremendous. Parallel speeches by Hector Ruiz of AMD and Steve Ballmer at the same event (the World Congress of IT) paled in comparison to Paul Otellini’s speech about World Ahead. Later that year, Intel reorganized their emerging market sales for into an official “World Ahead” organization.

Then Microsoft jumped on the bandwagon with the launch of Unlimited Potential in mid-2007 with similar goals but an arguably more comprehensive initiative encompassing new of unique software solutions, marketing initiatives and sales programs.

The leaders lose their “luster”

As of this writing in March 2009, all of these programs still exist. OLPC, 50×15, World Ahead and Unlimited Potential are all still functioning. Some are struggling … recent announcements by OLPC that their were cutting their staff by 50% and relying more on volunteers is just one example. Yet all of these organizations are still very active in the effort to increase computer access to under-served markets. On a trip this week to three countries in South America, both OLPC and the Classmate PC have been deployed, or are about to be deployed. Awareness and preference is very high for notebooks and netbooks. But none of these efforts could be called a stand-out “thought leader” today. A combination of time (hype can only last so long), previous challenges, and the capacity to continue to fund these projects all challenge their ability to lead. All of this is leading to what I believe will be a leadership void in the effort to bring affordable internet and computer access to emerging markets. But before I talk about this void and who could possibly fill it, I think it would help to explain what thought leadership is, and how a company can become one.

This post is the first part of a two-part series on thought leadership for computer makers in emerging markets. Part 2 will discuss the characteristics companies will need to develop if they want to become a “thought leader.