OLPC Part 2: Nicholas Negroponte on the Mideast and the XO 3 Tablet—and Why He May Not Ever Have to Build It

Nicholas Negroponte walked into the Starbucks holding some sort of thin, tablet-like computer. I couldn’t tell what model, because it was zipped inside a carrying case—but I was hoping for a prototype of the XO 3, the next-generation tablet Negroponte’s One Laptop per Child Foundation wants to create for children in the developing world for something like $75 per machine.

“That’s not an iPad?” I asked, hoping it was not.

“It is an iPad,” Negroponte replied, crushing my hopes for an exclusive early look at the envisioned device. “We’re fast, but not that fast.” We met last Friday at the Starbucks in the Galleria Mall, here in Cambridge, MA, not far from OLPC headquarters. It was kind of ironic how deftly Negroponte wielded the iPad, using it to look up information and send me pictures and PowerPoint slides as we spoke, and flipping it around occasionally to demonstrate similarities and differences between it and the planned XO 3. As I snapped off a few pictures, he joked that they would make a nice ad for Apple (except he hadn’t seen the quality of my pictures).

While the dimensions of the iPad and planned XO 3 are very similar, the differences between the machines—one for upscale consumers, the other for children in developing nations—are profound. But perhaps the most interesting part of our conversation was Negroponte’s assertion that OLPC might not have to build anything at all to get an XO 3-like tablet to market (more on all this later).

We were speaking as part of several interviews I have been doing with OLPC personnel and advisors to catch up on the group’s progress and ambitions. On Tuesday, I profiled the OLPC Association, the business side of the organization. This article, based primarily on my interview with Negroponte, looks at the OLPC Foundation. Negroponte is the founder of and top figure in the entire organization, but the foundation (which he chairs) is his chief focus. Its mission is really twofold: to bring laptops, starting with the current XO model, to children in new areas such as Gaza and Afghanistan, and to oversee development of the XO 3 tablet.

OLPCAfghanistan

Both efforts, it turns out, are utilizing innovative new initiatives and ideas—with what might be called mixed success. Negroponte’s update included a sobering assessment of U.S. policy in Afghanistan, and a report on OLPC’s Gaza plans that wasn’t unlike reports of Mideast peace talks: things are frustratingly slow to develop. There was better news on the XO 3 front: as I reported on Monday, semiconductor maker Marvell recently committed to a $5.6 million grant to fund the tablet’s development. Along the way, Negroponte had some observations about the evolution of computing I found fascinating—including his assertion that tablets were not creating the market for e-books, but that it was rather the other way around. And my overall impression was that while the days of ubiquitous praise and head-spinning press about the OLPC project are long past, the organization is actually settling into a pace and place where it could make by far its biggest impact in the next few years ahead.

Getting Laptops to Afghanistan and Gaza

We spoke first about efforts to expand OLPC’s reach. Most of the organization’s success so far has come in South America and Latin America (primarily Uruguay and Paraguay), and to a lesser degree parts of Africa. Negroponte now seems to be focusing mostly on the Middle East: Gaza, Afghanistan, Iraq. And to do it, he’s had to come up with an entirely different model for getting laptops into the hands of kids, one based on humanitarian donations rather than convincing governments to purchase the machines.

The humanitarian donation idea, he says, is almost “totally new.” Outside of very few exceptions, the 1.5 million laptops distributed to date (plus another 500,000 on back order) have been funded by the governments of the countries for which they’re intended. But that won’t work in … 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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