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At Davos: citizenship, apostasy and $100 laptops

This year at Davos, it was politically correct for corporations to show concern for the planet. Exceptions were few, but notable. An insider's view from Fortune's David Kirkpatrick.

By David Kirkpatrick, Fortune senior editor

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- I was sitting in a session at Davos idly doing e-mail when I suddenly slapped my laptop closed and listened, amazed. Nestle CEO Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, on stage, was asserting that global warming doesn't much matter, that Al Gore deliberately omitted contradictory information from his movie "An Inconvenient Truth," and that the world would be better off using money it is spending to comply with the Kyoto Protocol to improve water supplies.

That evening at a party I ran into venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, now investing in clean-energy start-ups. What did he think of Brabeck-Letmathe's comments, I asked? "He should see his proctologist to find his head," said Khosla, "and you can quote me."

So it goes at the World Economic Forum, where the world's leading expert on any subject may end up sitting next to you at lunch, and everyone's got an opinion on everything. This year's Davos swarmed with energy and climate gurus. Brabeck-Letmathe's ill-considered remarks were especially noteworthy because the 2500 attendees - including corporate chieftains -seemed to have reached near-universal consensus that global warming is real and businesses and governments must thus change their behavior.

The company in Davos is dazzling, even to one of the most worldly and influential environmentalists. I was sitting on a sofa interviewing Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, when Environmental Defense President Fred Krupp stopped by to say hello. Krupp was instrumental in orchestrating the big announcement a couple weeks ago when GE, BP and a number of other corporate giants announced a plan to help combat climate change.

When I introduced Krupp to Wales, he was for a moment dumbfounded. Then he explained that his son reveres Wales and would be blown away to learn his dad had met him. Wales genially agreed to a photograph with Krupp.

Wales wore an orange press badge, which gets you into fewer Davos venues than the precious white badges that companies pay $35,000 to get. Wales explained that orange was the best he could do because he'd come at the last minute, after receiving a call from his friend Bono inviting him to a party with Bill and Melinda Gates and Tony Blair.

In past years Gates had been interviewed at a private session (invited guests only) by Charlie Rose, but the PBS talk-show host this year moved over to what has become an even hotter ticket - the private after-dinner conversation with Google (Charts) founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page. Guests included New York Times (Charts) CEO Arthur Sulzberger and Arianna Huffington.

Davos has numerous sub-cultures. In the tech and media precincts I frequented, Brin and Page are the superstars. In past years they've milled around the little cafes in the Forum's Congress Centre just like everybody else. But this year their celebrity went orbital. Every CEO, it seemed, and many a head of state wanted to meet with them. By contrast, Chad Hurley of YouTube, Google's much-celebrated recent acquiree, seemed content to stay in the background. When I sledded down the mountain with friends after the Forum's closing picnic, Hurley happily joined us.

Nicholas Negroponte, longtime director of MIT's Media Lab, was toting around a working version of his so-called "$100 laptop" (which will initially cost about $150). Everyone from Michael Dell to Google's Vint Cerf was seen playing with it. The little green-and-white computer is so sexy that many pronounced it "cooler than the iPhone."

I had to miss the Gates/Friedman breakfast to moderate a special working session for technology companies on bridging the global digital divide. (John Markoff wrote about it in the Times and you can read it without a password at CNET.) Negroponte dutifully toted in his tiny laptop, which he hopes to be producing in tens of millions by next year for the world's poorest children. (A group of eminent techies, divided between skeptics and enthusiasts, entertained themselves at a dinner by taking formal bets on how many Negroponte would actually produce.)

The featured speaker at the digital divide session was Intel (Charts) Chairman Craig Barrett, who has been outspokenly critical of Negroponte's laptop, in part because it is based on a processor chip from arch-rival AMD (Charts). Intel at Davos was trying to strike back by showing its own green-and-white "Classmate PC," which is considerably more expensive and whose clunkiness prompted no iPhone comparisons.

Barrett and Negroponte traded barbs in which each accused the other of caring more about marketing than children. Then AMD President Henri Richard made a proposal - despite their rivalry on other matters, the two chipmakers should cooperate on special software for inexpensive educational computers.

Intel's Barrett responded unenthusiastically. The air turned sour in the room, which included Michael Dell and executives from Cisco (Charts), Sun (Charts), and other companies, along with tech-oriented NGOs. Everyone seemed disappointed at Barrett's rebuff. When the session ended, however, a lower-level Intel executive approached Richard amiably, and the two men chatted with animation.

It was a characteristic moment. The mood in Davos this year was that doing good for the world and being responsive to society is merely the price of entry to corporate success. At a session on how the nature of business power is shifting, Harvard Business School Professor Rakesh Khurana said that the biggest challenge facing companies "is to regain and sustain their legitimacy in society." Even a group of mining and minerals executives found themselves talking about how to embrace NGOs that monitor their industry.

CEOs with views like Brabeck-Letmathe, thankfully, were in the minority. I left Davos heartened. Top of page