Tom Temin | Editor's Desk: When less means more

Tom Temin

You might have read about professor-media thinker-consultant Nicholas
Negroponte's project to get governments of poor countries to buy $100 computers
for their children. He described the project when speaking at the recent Management of Change conference of the American Council for Technology.

The project has three components'the development of a real computer that, in
sufficient volume, can be sold by Negroponte's nonprofit company for around a
hundred bucks; the establishment of WiFi mesh networks to make the computers
useful; and the sales effort with the countries' key ministers.

The technological piece of the project intrigued me.

Every product marketer seems hell-bent on cramming as many features into every
product as possible. It can reach the absurd. Worse, it can be counterproductive,
given the exponential growth of failure points in bloated software. To say nothing of the huge and costly tail of deployment'euphemistically called 'services.'

Negroponte's proposed computer sports 512MB of flash memory instead of a hard drive, runs a small version of Red Hat Linux and requires two watts of power. It can be recharged with a hand crank.

Such a product has no obvious application in governmental or business computing,
nor much of a commercial market in places like Japan or the United States. Yet
its utter utility and whimsical bright yellow case confers on the $100 notebook a kind of elegance. Like a 1959 Beetle. The machine results from a refreshing way of thinking.

When was the last time someone asked: What is the absolute minimum amount of
technology we can get by with to accomplish Mission X?

Government employs well-developed mechanisms to evaluate proposals. But I
believe it rarely goes deep enough. Negroponte did a thorough value analysis of the
portable PC and stripped it to the absolute essentials for his particular application.

We should also ask not how much industry can do, but how little.

Thomas R. Temin, Editor in chief


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