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Sub-$1 PCs? MIT chief speaks, but do we believe?

Negroponte holds forth on this, i-laundry and Web use inflation

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Speaking to the IDC Forum in Paris today Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of the MIT media labs, gave a refreshing and non-American view of the Internet, which he was able to do since he had been educated in Europe and spends nearly half his time there. He expressed a healthy cynicism towards the figure of 500 million Internet users in 2003, as forecast by IDC, but thought that the number could be higher by a factor of two or three.

Negroponte also questioned the figure that had been fed to President Clinton and used by him in speeches that in 2004 the Internet economy would be worth $367 billion. He thought it would easily pass $1 trillion. He noted that in countries like Italy (there are 200,000 paying customers there), there are often six users for each ISP subscription, so spreading the cost.

It was also strange, he thought, to ignore China and India, which would soon together have more than half the world's population. Yet in a world where 200 million children do not receive even primary education, it was not surprising that some schools in Latin America were removing computers in order to provide more money for the most basic education.

He expressed his frustration that in 1984 a Mac could get email in a few seconds after switch on, but his 600 MHz Pentium today took several minutes. Nor did he like having to argue with MS Word about margin settings and the like.

Negroponte thought that the biggest problem in Europe holding back Internet use was the high cost of access, something not mentioned by IDC. He put this down to the preparations by PTTs during privatisation to move cross-subsidisation from long-distance calls to local calls, often increasing the cost of local calls at the same time, or introducing a metered rate. Could it be that the European Commission is at fault for encouraging higher telecom charges, against the interest of European citizens?

Negroponte didn't think that the PC would disappear, but he did think it would lose weight. In his lab, they were working on designs to achieve a sub $1 processor, display and keyboard, but he did not elaborate on this, alas.

So far as investment was concerned, Negroponte saw a great opportunity in delivery services for online purchases. He also introduced a novel idea he had floated past Fred Smith, the founder of Fedex: if somebody was travelling to six cities in six days and wanted clean laundry in each location, it would be hard to carry enough clothes in a carry-on airline suitcase. But the opportunity for Fedex, Negroponte explained, was to deliver a parcel to a hotel half way through the trip with a return bow for the dirty laundry. Fedex could add value by undertaking the laundry at its Memphis hub, and then deliver it to the traveller's base. The clincher was that this could be less expensive than trying to use rapid laundry services in hotels en route.

Speaking to The Register, Negroponte elaborated on American inability to come to terms with the heterogeneity of Europe, and how difficult it was for Americans to understand European culture: "There is a very small understanding" in the US, he said. He returned to his laundry theme: "Why are clothes washers front-loaded in Europe?" he mused. It seemed that such machines in the US were always top-loaded, making it impossible to use the space on top of the machine, often creating a need for a separate utility room. The rest of the world had come to accept American "standards", but Americans remained fundamentally unadaptable.

Negroponte believed that the largest amount of semiconductor material in the home would be in toys, rather than in online washing machines or refrigerators. It was just a matter of time before Barbie dolls would be calling up online to get a new dress.

Contrary to expectations, Negroponte does not speak Italian, but he does speak French. ®

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