Well, it seems like the OLPC organization is in the news a lot lately, even more so than usual. Stories that caught my eye over the last week included a CNN report, a BBC story from Monday, and of course the Wall Street Journal page A1 story that came out this last Saturday.
Microsoft’s approach to the OLPC continues to be that we will work with them to see if we can get Windows to run on the XO machine — there is still a lot of technical work to do, despite what you might hear in the press – but otherwise we need to remain focused on our Unlimited Potential mission for enabling social and economic opportunity for the next five billion through transforming education, fostering local innovation, and enabling jobs and opportunity. We are applying a great deal of energy across these three areas in pilot projects around the world, and we don’t really want to get distracted by the public rhetoric taking place around the OLPC and their XO machine. We are working with partners on a broad spectrum of solutions for education in emerging markets — and low cost computing is just one of them — but we also have pilot projects in other areas ranging from rural kiosks to new approaches for subscription computing, new applications for cell phones, new models for Internet cafes/community centers, and new approaches for mobile and remote access to the Internet. We have a lot going on and really need to focus first and foremost on the needs of the communities we are serving. Our mantra in all of this is "Relevance, Access, and Affordability."
The WSJ article was kind of cool in the sense that I was interviewed and referenced in the story, even though I didn’t land a direct quote. I’ve been at Microsoft since 1995, and this was the first time I have appeared on the front page of the Journal. (By the way, my sister Lisa — who also works here — was featured in a page one WSJ story last year, for those of you who are keeping tabs on the Utzschneiders.)
Anyway, I’ve thought a lot about this whole OLPC phenomenon, and the best way for me to summarize my thoughts on the topic is to refer you to two quotes, both from bosses I’ve had at Microsoft.
The first is from David Vaskevitch, one of Microsoft’s CTOs. He was an early mentor of my career here, and at one point I ran a technology incubation team working for him. David always liked to remind me that "the technology industry consistently overestimates what it can accomplish in 2 years, and consistently underestimates what it can accomplish in 10". This is coming from a guy who chose to center his 1996 Professional Developers Conference keynote around the emerging importance of digital photography — we all thought at the time that he was nuts — but look at what happened 10 years later. It’s now one of the most widely used scenarios on the PC today (and among other things, a staple ingredient for how I create this blog.) And for what it’s worth, I used this quote in my interview with the WSJ to summarize our view of what Nicholas Negroponte and the OLPC are doing.
The second quote comes from Doug Burgum, the man who spent 25 years building the Great Plains/MBS business into what ultimately became a billion dollar division for Microsoft before he retired this past summer. Doug had an amazing capacity to inspire a community of channel partners into creating an ecosystem around a shared vision and more importantly a shared set of values. His quote — it actually originated from Margaret Mead, but Doug liked to use it a lot — was to "Never doubt that a small, group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." One of the powerful ideas behind the OLPC is their approach for harnessing the power and excitement of a community to accomplish a shared (and in this case, noble) mission. We know at Microsoft what this can feel like; sometimes people forget that my company has a lot of experience with building communities organically. There’s nothing like the feeling you get when you start a parade!
So my view on the OLPC is that Nicholas, Walter, Mary Lou– all people I’ve never met but whom I admire at a distance — are a group of dangerous dreamers (another Dougism) who are out to change the world and could have a huge impact on education over the course of the next ten years, but not so much in the next two. I love the boldness of their vision, their focus on serving the needs of poor children, and their desire to do great things.
But I also know the reality of the physics of the IT industry and the difficulty in trying to go from zero to millions of deployed, functioning, supported machines in a matter of months. About the nature of how this industry works, where one group may come up with an idea and then other organizations or individuals build on the idea and come in from seemingly nowhere (hello ASUS!) with a different type of solution to fill a vacuum created by the original vision. (Ask me how I felt after I read the first public draft of the Enterprise Java Beans spec, a document that was "inspired" by work we were doing on COM and MTS in the mid-90’s.) And how the implementation of IT visions ultimately comes down to customer choice, because people — even people who work in government Ministries of Education — are rational actors who select things that are in their best interest and take into account price, roadmap, TCO, pedagogies, politics, local infrastructure, support, bake-off results, the need for measurable outcomes, you name it … the whole variety of factors that go into a complex government purchase process.
It takes a village to buy a computer, and it’s always harder than you think it will be.
But that’s all OK, because the OLPC vision isn’t going to go away. There will be a permanent role for low cost, flash-based PCs in national education and technology policies. The XO will survive and evolve, and I bet every laptop vendor on the planet including Dell and HP will have a competing machine within 24 months. A new ecosystem of collaborative, social network-inspired and Internet-enabled education software will emerge. Cell phones will play a bigger role in this space than even Nicholas is publicly acknowledging. And kids and teachers will author a lot of the content.
Dangerous dreamers who assume they will change the world in two years but actually do so in ten, in a manner they never initially anticipated. That’s my personal view of what the people at OLPC are trying to do. I love the industrial design, I love the screen, and I love the rabbit ears. I wish the team well. But there are other dangerous dreamers out there, and ultimately it will be the magic of software delivered in a sustainable manner that will be the key to transforming education.
But now I need to go back to work.