OLPC 2.0: After Layoffs, One Laptop Foundation Reboots With New Focus and Big Plans

For those inspired by Nicholas Negroponte’s vision of bringing affordable computing to every child on the planet, it was a sad day early this month when the One Laptop Per Child Foundation he founded announced it was laying off half its staff and undertaking a significant reorganization.

Negroponte himself isn’t crying, though—he is working on plans for the future: OLPC 2.0, you might call it. Only a bullet-point sketch was presented on the OLPC blog, but Negroponte and OLPC President Charles “Chuck” Kane met with me last week in Harvard Square to explain more. We covered how the layoffs came about, particularly the failure of the Give One, Get One (G1G1) program and where that leaves the organization financially. And they shared plans to spin out operations in Latin America, where OLPC has been most successful, while beefing up efforts in Africa and the Middle East—as well as their thoughts on the next generation of XO laptops, including the foundation’s technical goals and commercial competition from netbooks.

While Negroponte and Kane painted an optimistic picture, pointing to the fact that the one millionth OLPC laptop will be deployed in the field in February, I found them candid about the hard lessons learned and challenges the organization faces. As Negroponte told me, his passion for the project and its importance is as strong as ever, but the foundation is at a turning point in its evolution and must focus better on where it can make big differences. “That’s the thing to keep in mind, and to make sure we don’t just perpetuate ourselves for perpetuation’s sake if some aspects of OLPC have run their course—and to recognize that and not try to be an incrementalist.”

The most vivid example of this philosophy, to me, was Negroponte’s comparison of the XO and netbooks. XOs cost about $225 apiece. Netbooks, which are produced by companies like Acer and Lenovo, among others, run about $300 to $450 but offer more memory and graphics power and larger screens. So, one could ask, won’t the normal, cost-curve-squashing evolution of computers obviate what OLPC is trying to do, and more efficiently than a non-profit? Negroponte replies that OLPC is not trying to compete with commercial computer makers but instead asking, “What are the things the normal commercial market won’t be pushing?”

In the case of netbooks, he says, “You could arguably say we really created the netbook market. But if you look at the netbooks, they really copied the easy part. They didn’t copy low power, they didn’t copy mesh networks, they didn’t copy sunlight-readable displays. All three things are absent from every single netbook.”

To understand the points Negroponte ticked off, recall that XO laptops operate on very low power, which can be generated by pulling on a cord that plugs into the computer—a valuable feature in places where people pay by the minute for electricity, or electricity is unreliable. “You’ve got to be in the two-watt regime in order for it to be something you can power by hand,” Negroponte says. Netbooks, by contrast, require more like 20 watts, he says.

OLPC laptops are also able to link together into wireless mesh networks that can easily pass data between computers, and include displays that can be read in glaring sunlight—again, features incredibly useful in developing nations and things Negroponte says the commercial market really isn’t focused on.

But we’re getting slightly ahead of the story. Before diving into the technology or future plans for OLPC, we started with what went wrong.

Give None, Get None

The G1G1 effort was crafted to spur consumers in developed nations to buy XO laptops for schoolchildren in emerging nations. Consumers could buy one, which would be sent to a school of OLPC’s choosing, and then get another laptop to keep or send wherever they wanted. In the 2007 holiday season, Negroponte told me, the program … Next Page »

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Bob is Xconomy's founder and editor in chief. You can e-mail him at bbuderi@xconomy.com, call him at 617.500.5926. Follow @bbuderi

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