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Online Extra: Q&A With MIT's Nicholas Negroponte


Nicholas Negroponte, founding chairman of MIT's Media Laboratory, has long been a leading analyst of the Digital Age. The Media Lab has been a trailblazer in the area of study and experimentation on human communication. And Negroponte's 1995 book, Being Digital, was a best-selling guide to the coming era. He responded, via e-mail from Europe, to questions from BusinessWeek's Stephen Baker. Edited excerpts from their exchange follow:

Q: Which new products or services are likely to make the biggest splash?

A: Peer-to-peer is key. I mean that in every form conceivable: cell phones without towers, sharing leftover food, bartering, etc. Furthermore, you will see micro-wireless networks, where everyday devices become routers of messages that have nothing to do with themselves.

Nature is pretty good at networks, self-organizing systems. By contrast, social systems are top-down and hierarchical, from which we draw the basic assumption that organization and order can only come from centralism.

Q: One idea is that this jousting between industries will create friction, fights, and startling innovation. Are there examples where the blending of two industries really did spark some magic?

A: Companies cannot really see beyond their current customer base. They explicitly or implicitly do things to protect their current customers. And the last person to want real change is your customer. This is why most new ideas come from small companies that have nothing to lose.

Q: In the past, different technologies and standards protected companies and industries like sets of moats and borders. Digital technology and Internet protocol wipe away many of these defenses. Yet plenty of standards wars continue, in everything from DVDs to digital music formats. Which standards will make a difference? Which ones will disappear?

A: Standards are often used to protect the incumbent or a domestic market. China is doing this at the moment, to its own peril. We have seen this time and time again. When the French did it for TV [with the SECAMsystem], it cost them a great deal and failed miserably. If only the Chinese would look at history.

But the long term is brighter, not because people will get smarter or less protective but because standards, as we know them, will play less of a role. More and more will be down in software, like software-definable radios, so you can download a new device (a new standard) as needed, vs. build it into a product (as we did with physical items, like plugs).

Q: Asia is already gaining great strength in the wireless industry, and the Asians dominate consumer electronics. As computing makes its way into the living room, will Asian companies win there too?

A: Without question. Samsung is already pushing Sony (it's also Asian) out of the living room. Kids five years from now will know Samsung as the premier consumer-electronics company.

Q: Some would have it that many of the great innovations are going to come from outsiders who figure out how to harness new technology and then use it to lay waste to the big companies' business plan in the process. One example might be [peer-to-peer Net telephony startup] Skype. Is innovation more likely to come from popular or subversive movements?

A: As I said above, innovation comes from those who stand to lose the least from it. That said, lets separate what Skype is doing from innovation itself. Skype is remarkable (I know them well) and will change the landscape radically. However, they have done so not by innovating and inventing either peer-to-peer or IP telephony, but by executing extremely well. The actual innovations came long before.

Q: Where are we on the tech cycle?

A: Key is the question of where do new ideas come from. Historically, four places: government labs, big corporations, startup companies, and research universities. Government labs are shrinking (in the U.S., at least). Big companies are looking closer term, and even the most technological companies spend less than 1% of sales on research. Startups have suffered the burst bubble.

So this leaves universities somewhat alone. This isn't meant to be self-serving, but it plays nicely into the change in higher education -- it has to become more research university-oriented than just classroom affairs.


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