Negroponte Outlines the Future of OLPC—Hints at Paperlike Design for Third Generation Laptop

[Updated 11/2/09 with additional details about 3rd-generation laptop design, see page 2] After the October 24 announcement that the Internet Archive is about to make 1.6 million e-books available free to children with XO Laptops from the One Laptop Per Child Foundation, we decided it was time to catch up with OLPC’s founder and chairman, Nicholas Negroponte. The organization has been through drastic changes of late, including a round of layoffs early this year necessitated by disappointing holiday 2008 sales and the pullout of major sponsors, and the subsequent spinoff of its sales and education-software efforts. But last time we talked with Negroponte, back in January, he had ambitious plans for rebooting the One Laptop effort, with an emphasis on getting the computers into new markets.

We wondered how the organization was progressing toward some of the goals Negroponte had laid out in the January interview. Last week, he took time on a recent plane trip to respond to a set of written questions. We’ve reproduced them below, with a few explanatory comments appended.

Of perhaps greatest interest, Negroponte told us the organization has scrapped plans unveiled in May 2008 for an e-book-like second-generation XO laptop, instead focusing on an upgraded version of the current XO and designs for a “3.0” version of the device that will be “more like a sheet of paper.” And whereas the XO was once described as the “hundred-dollar laptop,” Negroponte said experience has indicated that the total cost of ownership for the device, including Internet connectivity, is closer to $1 per week per child. This amount is “high” but “not outrageous,” in Negroponte’s view; he says discussion in most countries where OLPC is operating has shifted away from whether the machines aid education efforts and toward how to pay for them.

Xconomy: What do you see as the main significance in the Internet Archive making e-books available for the XO Laptop?

Nicholas Negroponte: A further example of why olpc (lowercase) is not just education as we knew it and how learning opportunity can reach the most isolated places in the world.

[Editor’s comment: As Negroponte explains below, the organization is actually two separate bodies now—the One Laptop Per Child Association, which builds the XO Laptop, and the One Laptop Per Child Foundation, whose mission is to stimulate grassroots technology and education efforts in developing countries. Both groups are undergoing a rebranding of sorts, switching from OLPC to the lowercase “olpc.”]

X: You had set as a goal back in January one million digital books. Looks like you overshot. Do you have a new goal? Five million?

NN: No. The next few million do not matter. It is like laptops. There are over a million in the hands of kids in 19 languages and 31 countries. The next million are less important only because the point has been made and traction exists.

X: In January, you laid out four main goals: development of the Generation 2.0 
laptop, a no-cost connectivity program, publishing a million digital books, and passing on the development of the Sugar operating system to the community. We just asked about the books. Could you provide an update on the other three areas?

NN: 2.0 has been replaced by two things: 1) model 1.75, same industrial design but an ARM inside, 2) model 3.0, totally different industrial design, more like a sheet of paper. No cost connectivity will start up with the ITU in Geneva. It has been the slowest piece.

[Editor’s comment: By “model 1.75,” Negroponte is referring to an upgraded version of the current green-and-white XO laptop with a different processor inside—a faster chip made by UK-based chipmaker ARM. The Generation 2.0 XO laptop was to be a book-like pair of touchscreens, but would likely have been too expensive to build. OLPC has not released further details about the paper-like “3.0” model Negroponte describes. The ITU is the International Telecommunications Union in Geneva, Switzerland. Along with OLPC and other groups such as AMD’s 50×15 Foundation, the ITU is working to bring high-speed Internet service to at least half of the world’s population by 2015.]

[Update, 11/2/09, 11:30 pm: We wrote back to Negroponte to request more details about the “model 3.0” XO laptop. He replied: “Not much to say other than its aspirational aspects: 3.0 is a single sheet, completely plastic and unbreakable, waterproof, 1/4″ thick, full color, reflective and transmissive, no bezel, no holes. 1W. $75, ready in 2012.”]

X: What are the advantages to separating Sugar from the XO, and what are your thoughts about Sugar on a Stick and other work Walter Bender is doing at Sugar Labs?

NN: Sugar Labs has taken over Sugar and is doing what we should have done in the first place, making it an application not an operating system.

[Editors’ comment: In the spring of 2008, OLPC co-founder Walter Bender left the organization and started Sugar Labs, a non-profit group which has taken over development of Sugar, the education-oriented operating environment designed for the XO Laptop. This June, Sugar Labs released a version of Sugar stored on a USB drive, allowing anyone to run Sugar on a Windows, Mac, or Linux machine. The software-supported educational activities originally envisioned as the main application for the XO Laptop have thus been separated from the laptop itself.]

X: Are there any new goals, and if so, what are they?

NN: We have separated the Foundation and Association, making two non-profit entities, moving from OLPC to olpc. The Association, based in Miami, deals clearly and professionally with sales, support and deployment. The Foundation, by contrast, is more focused on advocacy, engineering and humanitarian missions.

X: What’s up on the deployment front? You had set goals to spin off Latin America as a separate support unit, make sub-Saharan Africa a major learning, hub, and put a major focus on the Middle East, Afghanistan, and northwestern Pakistan.

NN: The Latin American spin off has morphed into OLPCA and is now worldwide, including Africa. Rwanda has been our learning hub since June. Afghanistan and Northwestern Pakistan continue to be a major focus. More recently, we received permission to ship laptops in Gaza, so that now is a deployment.

X: You had a 500,000-machine manufacturing backlog. Where does that stand now?

NN: The precise numbers today are 1.1 million [laptops] out and a back-log of 400,000-700,000, depending on how you count. More importantly, the numbers mean less, like the books. In fact, a far more interesting number is that as much as 1/3 of the current worldwide production of laptops is netbooks.

[Editor’s comment: Negroponte is referring to the surge in popularity over the last two years of small, low-cost laptop computers; some observers have credited OLPC for inspiring interest in this category among consumers in developed countries.]

X: Generally, what other progress have you made in your vision of OLPC taking orders and circulating them to various operating regions for fulfillment?

NN: The progress (I am repeating myself) is not measured by orders or fulfillment, but beliefs. People no longer question olpc as a concept. It is accepted. There is only one question and everybody asks it. That is: how do we pay for it? Turns out that is not hard, because the total cost of ownership, including buying the laptop, maintaining it and connecting it, is $1 per week, per child. While that is high for the poorest nations, it is not outrageous. The issue is how to front the money.

Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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