Mobilize 2010: Negroponte Sees Tablets as Creative Tool

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“Think about it. Turning pages. How ridiculous that is. It’s just unbelievably dumb,” said Nicholas Negroponte, describing the benefits of reading in bed on a tablet, and getting a big laugh from the audience at GigaOM’s Mobilize 2010. Negroponte described a scenario where your companion can fall asleep on your shoulder while you read a book on a tablet because you don’t have to use your whole arm to move from page to page. You also don’t have to use a light, and lean over to turn it off before you fall asleep, but just put the tablet down and drift off.

Reading comfortably in bed isn’t the only benefit of the tablet. There’s also “transparency of usage,” Negroponte said, comparing the way people can have friendly interactions around a tablet versus a teacher in a classroom facing “an army of backs of laptops.” Negroponte of course is mostly concerned with educational uses of tablets, as founder of the One Laptop Per Child. His non-profit has distributed 2 million laptops in 40 countries so far and announced it would transition to a tablet last December.

Negroponte spoke of the potential to make a tablet more than a consumption experience. “An interesting consequence comes from a level of creativity that can happen in places where it didn’t happen before,” he said, adding, “I think India is relatively overrated. I think China is underrated. And Africa isn’t even rated.”

Where Apple’s business might be described as “building peripherals for iTunes,” tablets should inspire and enable students to create things, said Negroponte. “We can’t turn these kids into couch potatoes. Just because you interact doesn’t mean you construct. [We need] learning by doing and learning by making. Learning by being told is only one way.”

OLPC’s tablet has now been prototyped, and includes things like a “transflective” screen that’s visible both during the day and at night. But Negroponte, appearing on stage with Weili Dai, the co-founder of OLPC tablet design partner Marvell, was vague about how and when this thing will actually be manufactured and released. “All we have to do is threaten to build the tablet and that may be enough because in the end, we are not hardware makers,” said Negroponte, calling that strategy “a new regime of trying to make things people will copy rather than doing it ourselves.” He said Marvell is helping OLPC with designing things like haptics to vibrate when a user types on the tablet’s virtual keyboard, but that it’s possible that children may not even care about getting feedback from the device when they touch it.

Negroponte described his motivation as such: “When I wake up in the morning I ask myself, ‘Will normal market forces do what I’m doing today?’ — and if the answer is yes, then stop.”

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