One Laptop Organization to World: Chill!

If you aren’t on a schedule, you can’t be late.

That was the gist of a conversation I had last night with Mary Lou Jepsen, chief technology officer at the One Laptop Per Child organization here in Cambridge. Jepsen says that a Reuters report yesterday asserting that production delays will cause the organization to miss promised delivery dates for its famous (to some infamous) XO-1 Laptop was misleading.

Jepsen says it’s true, as the story suggested, that final assembly of the first batch of mass-produced laptop—to begin soon at a recently expanded Quanta Computer factory in Changshu, northwest of Shanghai—was originally envisioned to begin in October, and will now start sometime in November. But neither the One Laptop organization nor Quanta ever claimed that production would be begin on a set day—so it’s a stretch to call the situation a “production delay.” Says Jepsen, “I think we had hoped to start mass production in October, but we were never focused on starting on a certain date. We’ve always just wanted to make the product as good as we can…I am certainly not aware of any promises that we are going to miss.”

And while Jepsen says she’s happy that audiences are so interested in the details of the One Laptop project, she points out that the One Laptop organization doesn’t work like a traditional manufacturing company, with detailed business plans or Gantt charts showing the dependencies between each part of the project. “It’s much looser and more collaborative, kind of in the spirit of the open-source movement—and yet I’ve never worked at a company where things have come together more smoothly,” she says. “Everyone thought this was impossible three years ago.”

Jepsen’s explanation may sound like spin, and the grandiose claims occasionally made about the “$100 laptop” by the project’s founder, former MIT Media Lab director Nicholas Negroponte, have certainly amounted to an open invitation to the project’s skeptics. But given the unprecedented scale of what the non-profit organization is attempting—distributing laptops to tens or hundreds of millions of the world’s children—small shifts in the organization’s timeline seem insignificant, especially when placed beside the years-long delays seen in some commercial products like Windows Vista.

XO-1 LaptopSome of the criticism leveled at the the One Laptop project since its January 2005 launch has been more serious. Skeptical observers have said that the device will be underpowered, that it will always cost more than Negroponte predicted (indeed, the current projected cost per laptop is around $200), and that the project duplicates efforts already underway in countries such as India to create cheap, mobile computing devices. Some governments have resisted the very idea of spending precious education funds on gadgets, while others have failed to follow through on commitments to purchase the machines.

A “buy one, give one” plan that will allow individuals to purchase an XO-1 laptop for themselves while donating another for distribution in a developing country, planned to begin November 12, has been perceived as a sign that national governments aren’t signing up to buy enough of the devices to allow the organization to reach efficiencies of scale in manufacturing. And the Boston Globe reports today that in a search for more paying customers, the organization is now appealing to wealthy individuals and corporations to help pick up the tab.

But none of those bumps seem to faze Jepsen. She says she’s had her “head down” for months focusing on the XO-1’s technical details and is preparing to leave for China on Saturday to oversee the beginning of the laptops’ final assembly from the thousands of components, such as motherboards, screens, and antennas (the device’s distinctive “ears”), that have already been manufactured. “We are still making changes to the ears, and I’m still waiting to hear how one little spring came out,” Jepsen says. “There are hundreds of little things you have to do. But none of that is really delaying it.”

“What is mass production, anyway?” asks Jepsen. “Is it when you put together the motherboards, or is it when the operators on the line screw together the plastic parts on a conveyor belt? You can say that that’s when it really becomes a laptop—but we designed it so that five-year-old kids in Nigeria can screw it together. In a way, the work is already largely done.” Jepsen points out that Quanta, the world’s largest laptop manufacturer, recently doubled the size of its Changshu manufacturing plant so that it could begin production of the XO-1, which will be the first product off the new lines.

Jepsen says she was surprised by the complaining tone that spread across the blogosphere yesterday in response to the Reuters story about the supposed delays. “On some level I’d just like to say to everyone, ‘Chill,'” she says. “But on the other hand, it’s clear that people are really interested in the process, and in learning about how a laptop is manufactured.”

The amount of information available about the XO-1’s design, production, and testing is already unprecedented; some 4,500 bugs are publicly viewable through the organization’s bug tracker, for example. But Jepsen says she’s inspired by all the attention on the production schedule to think about more ways to open the project to the public. “Maybe we should explain even more about what happens,” Jepsen says. “You never hear about when the new iPod starts its mass production at various factories; you only hear about when it’s going to show up in stores. But I guess I should send out a ‘Hello World’ the day we start mass production.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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