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Is Negroponte mellowing with age?

Net guru becomes, well, almost reasonable

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Opinion Professional guru professor Nicholas Negroponte, the sage of MIT media lab, appears to be mellowing in his old age. Not that what he says is any less out there but in an interview with the BBC this week, he seems to have lost his trademark crazy prediction habit.

Well, until he's asked about his favourite chestnuts of 3G phones, Barbie dolls and pill-sized computers anyway.

He kicks off with the gem that mobile companies had no idea that SMS text messaging would take off and even dismissed it as pointless for a while (something that we like to remind them of every time they twat on about how they are leveraging the text message market.)

From there he leads into broadband and that it isn't about bandwidth, it's about speed - people want to experience the Internet like they experience the TV, press a button and you are instantaneously at another site (our analogy, not his).

It's a nice point especially since the UK broadband industry has got itself into circular argument over whether demand or supply of fast Internet access is what is holding back consumers at the moment.

Broadband, says Nick, has been wrongly sold as "you can now look at TV on your laptop computer". However, just when we started thinking he might have turned over a new leaf, he's off about 3G phones.

The auction system for the licences was a terrible mistake and 3G itself is "a dog and people shouldn't want it and in fact I don't think it will see the light of day". Here we go.

Nick has a new theory - you can only persuade people to upgrade on a logarithmic scale. "In other words, if you give me 9,600 bits per second of connectivity - which is what I can get on GSM - that is terrific. [We'd just like to point out here that not that long ago Nick was convinced he would get 64Kbps out of GPRS.]

"Now, you come along and you say: 'Well, I'll give you 28,800 bits.' I'd say, 'it's so complicated to get it working'. So, you finally have to tempt me with something between 56 and maybe 100Kbps - and then I switch. And now that I have switched to 100Kbps, you come along and say: 'Well, I'll now give you 300 or 400Kbps.' I'm not interested. You have to give me four or five million to make me switch."

It's not a bad theory. Rubbish of course. Apart from magic numbers like 100 or 256, people don't really care about the stated speed, just what it can do. Also, if it were true, the same would be true for other aspects of computing like processors. Or non-mobile Internet access. There has to be a step up, sure, but logarithymic? Ridiculous.

Then Nick tries to persuade us that content providers are making money. "In Latin America, for example, newspapers increasingly find that they have more readership on their Web sites. Obviously they have 100 per cent readership on their Web sites when it comes to expats. So, it does have that enormous outreach [you still following this?]. The domestic use of it - I think in many cases - my sample is maybe limited to about 20 newspapers - they are certainly breaking even and some of them are doing better than breaking even."

We bet they're not.

But hold on! Here is the diamond in the rough. The BBC asked him: "One of the phenomena we see is people being able to buy PCs in high street shops that allow them to make films or documentaries very easily. Where in your view does that leave the professional content providers?"

And he replies: "When we teach kids how to write and they come home and do their essays as part of their homework and so on, we don't sit there agonising what this will do to journalists in the future. So, somehow, you expand the medium of expression for kids. I don't think that jeopardises the professionals; it creates a pool of much richer talent as these young people move through life."

Which, we have to say, we agree with. Although Nick did miss out the classic points that such readily available technology also opens up industries, lowers barriers to entry, expands creativity etc etc.

But it's alright though because Nick quickly follows that up with: "School is 98 per cent taking your left brain and turning it into a football and leaving your right brain like the size of a pea." Answers on a postcard to that one.

It's all downhill from there. He gives a long, even more convoluted explanation as to why he's right about his prediction that digital technology will create a global cyber state, even though everything points to countries' governments getting more militant in their self-protection. After all, each country's government and legal system would be putting itself out of business with a cyber state - and such self-important people will never allow that to happen if they can possibly avoid it.

And then we're on to pill-sized computers. "Maybe some TV programmes will be sent in vitamin pills. Just as you now swallow vitamin E, you might also get the news. I don't know." No, you don't.

Barbie dolls, of course. "The largest amount of semi-conductor material to flow into the home will undoubtedly be through toys. It's not TV sets, it's not refrigerators, it's not PCs, it's not handsets - it's going to be toys. If you are not making content for Barbie dolls today, you should start real soon."

Bits and atoms? "The next 10 years is about how bits and atoms come together. How do more bits get embedded in more atoms right down to grains of sugar?"

Well, we didn't say he had changed, just that he may have mellowed. Perhaps if someone can do an interview with him without mentioning 3G or Barbie dolls, we may yet elicit an in-depth insightful reflection on modern technology. ®

Related Link

The BBC interview

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