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.
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 places like Gaza or Afghanistan, where the governments can’t afford them. That necessitated coming up with a new way of getting them paid for, Negroponte says.
So how is this going? Progress, to date, is slow. “Both Gaza and Afghanistan are in process-nobody’s stepped up to the plate,” Negroponte says, perhaps allowing some frustration to show through. In the case of Afghanistan, he says, only 3,000 laptops have been distributed so far, with another 1,000 on the way. “The American government spends $2 billion a week on the war, and we spend $2 million a week on education [in Afghanistan]. It’s kind of incredible. So all the president of the United States has to do is move half of one percent from Column A to Column B and every child in Afghanistan would have a connected laptop.”
Gaza has seen a bit more success, but only a bit. Some 3,000 laptops have been distributed there as well, the last of the now-ended Give One, Get One program that donated one computer for each one purchased, Negroponte says. But OLPC is not allowed to talk to Hamas, which controls Gaza, “so it’s complicated,” he says. But that hasn’t daunted OLPC’s ambitions. The foundation wants to bring laptops to every child in Gaza and the West Bank, and to a large number in Israel as well. (All told, there are some 390,000 children in Gaza, 575,000 on the West Bank, and another 850,000 in Israel, Negroponte says.) That effort would cost about $300 million, he says, “which is not so big…it’s a manageable project.” What’s more, he adds, “We want to raise that by December 31st.”
To do this, OLPC is in discussion with other countries, trying to forge what Negroponte calls “bilateral-type agreements.” For instance, he says, “Maybe a Japan or Norway would help fund Gaza or Afghanistan,” he says.
XO 3— An Unbreakable Tablet Computer
Next up was the XO 3. It was here Negroponte dropped the news of Marvell’s grant. The chipmaker will provide the brains of a tablet for the developed world that will hit the market sometime next year, with the XO 3 version currently slated for 2012. Negroponte says the requirements of the OLPC model—targeting children in emerging nations—make it harder to produce than the “first world” Marvell tablet. He then ticked off the core features envisioned for the XO 3:
—100 percent plastic: “So it will be unbreakable,” he explains. “That’s very key. It’s not soft, but it’s bendable. The way to make something unbreakable is to have it be bendable.”
—Super thin and lightweight: Comparing the XO 3 to the iPad, Negroponte says, “It’s exactly the same size and screen size, smaller bezel.” (The bezel is the rim around the computer screen.)
—Haptic feedback: The idea is that when you use the onscreen keypad, it gives you force feedback that feels like typing on a regular keyboard.
—Dual mode display: Like the current XO laptop, the XO 3 would have a display that works both indoors and in bright sunlight. This might be the toughest part to produce, and Negroponte says it is one big reason the tablet won’t be ready before 2012.
—Extremely low power: “What I’d like to do,” says Negroponte, “is have it so you can just shake it so it will charge…you know wrist watches have worked that way for years.”
In sum, he says, “You want it unbreakable, no power, and always connected. And those are aspirations, but it’s the kind of thing we should be doing whether it’s at OLPC or MIT.”
If You Don’t Build It, They Will Come Anyway?
Negroponte took time in our meeting to philosophize a bit about tablet computers. “There’s a very interesting thing happening,” he says. “Paper books are really dead—they’re gone. And they’re not being killed by tablets, they’re creating tablets.”
That’s the opposite of what many people might think—but Negroponte sees the forces at work at close hand, because of his OLPC work. “It’s the fact that physical books don’t work anymore, especially in the developing world,” he says, comparing the difficulty and cost of shipping physical books against downloading 100 books or more on a single tablet. “It’s a complete luxury,” he says of physical books, “and it makes no sense.” (You can hear more about this from Negroponte directly this Saturday: he will be on a panel at the Boston Book Festival called The Tendencies of Technology.)
One other really interesting thing that came up in our conversation was that Negroponte left open the question of whether OLPC would ever really have to make the XO 3. “We may not ever build it,” he says. That’s largely because competition in the tablet and education spaces is so intense that commercial computer makers might fill the void themselves.
“The interesting thing about now versus five years ago—five years ago, we had to build a laptop, because there wasn’t a laptop” geared for the developing world, he says. Now, Negroponte says, it’s possible that “we don’t have to build a tablet. All we [might] have to do is threaten to build a tablet. And what’s interesting is that the key features of our tablet are ideas we want people to copy. So our IP will be as open as humanly possible.”