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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  • This would be the ultimate achievement: the XO-1.75 running Chrome OS absolutely smoothly (Sugar as an app) with any ARM Cortex A8 from TI, Freescale, Qualcomm, Samsung and others and shipping with the latest screen from Pixel Qi for $100 or less within months.

  • I’m not sure I understand the XO-3. Is it going to be a large tablet? No keyboard, just touchscreen? Will it have that funny pair of antennas, or will it look less like a cheap toy?

    The XO-1 pushed the manufacturing of netbooks. “Large” tablet computers already exist, but they are still not quite popular. Apple hasn’t released the buzzadary tablet they are supposedly developing, while users are anxiously awaiting for someone to produce something like this. Maybe the XO-3 will stimulate the production of such devices like XO-1 did to the netbooks?…

  • Yes, but can it run Crysis?

  • pwel

    how long it’s going to take for Negroponte to realize that the non-profit model is broken? relying on ngo pressured governments of developing countries to buy your gadget in the name of kids doesn’t produce a sustainable model. if you can, bring the market to those places.

  • @pwel You’re on. I have a business plan for putting electricity, Internet, and XOs into poor countries at a profit, using established microfinance techniques. How much would you like to invest?

    (This is not an offering, and the rest of the SEC-required boiler plate.)

  • ewr2san

    I so would have bought a XO-2 that design was GREAT!! Perfect form factor, flexible design, AWESOME. I easily would have paid $250 in a heartbeat. I would buy 2 if the price were lower.

    PLEASE PLEASE sub out the XO-2 build to some other manufacturer for the retail market!!

  • insight 1

    “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.”

    A (1): through professor muhammad yunus’ “social business” model (read
    “Creating A World Without Poverty”). to see ways in which that
    operates successfully on an international scale, see e.g.
    http://kivo.org. adaptation of kivo to fund children’s education on a
    long-term scale instead of / as well as funding businesses: that could
    be very interesting.

    A (2): as the http://www.hole-in-the-wall.com project shows (see
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/click_online/4365350.stm) you
    actually only need to drop _one_ computer into an entire _village_,
    and the kids will work it out and educate themselves. you will have
    heard of the hole-in-the-wall project: it’s the project that inspired
    “slumdog millionaire”. you _have_ to listen to the interview, it is
    heart-rending inspiring stuff, and also very very funny at how badly
    we quotes adults quotes underestimate quotes ignorant quotes children.

    A (3): i don’t see cafod and oxfam saying things like “pay $1 a week
    and get a child a laptop so he can get educated” i see “pay us $1 a
    week and get a child some fresh water” hmmm…

    insight 2

    whilst negroponte brings to us the importance of educating children,
    why is it in all the discussions is there no mention of providing
    facilities for the _adults_ in these same countries?

    as the ndiyo.org project’s fultoa and attridgeville 2006 deployments
    showed (funded through microloans from professor yunus’s grameen bank,
    in the bangladesh case), there _is_ a way to make use of low-cost
    technology to bring internet communications to the third world and the
    emerging markets: it’s just that there appears to be nobody really
    “marketing” such technology in order to get it out to people! given
    that i am aware that the price of technology has dropped by almost 50%
    since the 2006 ndiyo.org deployments, i find this to be personally
    quite frustrating.

    http://ndiyo.org/news/fultoa
    http://ndiyo.org/news/attridgeville

    http://plugable.com/products/ud-160-a/ and products like this are now
    beginning to be integrated into the _monitors_. with smartphones
    coming out with large amounts of RAM and faster ARM CPUs, it’s
    perfectly possible to connect two monitors… to a smartphone! and
    have them run as an Internet Browser, VoIP phone calls (through
    speakers or a headset connected to each monitor). the smartphone _is_
    the PC, eliminating the cost of the PC entirely.

    insight 3

    if 600,000 copies of electronic books can fit onto an OLPC, and if
    http://wikireader.org can fit 3 million wikipedia pages onto a
    handheld viewer, why isn’t access to these resources more widely
    distributed?

    insight 4

    if these 3rd generation OLPC books are so fantastic and cheap, why the
    hell aren’t they also being made available for adults, as well?

    why aren’t they being provided in china, india etc. for them to run
    educational training videos (“learn how to maintain and service a
    motor scooter in 12 weekly night classes”) that are downloaded over
    the period of one week, over slower low-cost networks? one training
    video per week won’t be disrupted if it takes 4 days to download the
    video, will it?

    and the same OLPC system can be used by the kids during the day, too.

    insight 5: technical misrepresentation

    ahhh… although the SUGAR software would _like_ you to believe that
    it can run on Windows PCs, it actually can’t. not fully-functionally,
    that is. the process of compiling the software to run on Windows is
    an absolute bitch: a key strategic component is tied too closely to
    the Firefox Browser engine (xulrunner). the last time someone
    (novell) successfully compiled that component was nearly 18 months ago
    (xulrunner 1.8 for win32) and that is _far_ too out-of-date.

    despite this, there _are_ a large number of components that will still
    operate “independently” of the firefox browser engine, but it’s going
    to be a slow process of getting programmer mindshare and redesigning
    from the ground up to accommodate alternative operating systems. if
    they wanted SUGAR to run on windows, they should have started with
    that in mind in the first place.

    ideally, SUGAR-on-a-stick should (if it isn’t already) just be a Linux
    “Live Boot”, taking over the hardware without touching the hard drive.
    i haven’t checked that this is the case, though.

    http://wiki.sugarlabs.org/go/Sugar_on_a_Stick/Strawberry

    now i have: it’s a “live boot” USB memory stick, which “takes over” your computer without touching it. it is NOT actually install Sugar as a “windows application”. that goal has a long LONG way to go, to be achieved.

    Insight 6

    What happens when all these OLPC users grow up? Has anyone thought ahead, to provide these countries with the technology that these newly-inspired creative minds will need?

    anyone that needs reminding of the potential nasty consequences and the responsibilities and duties associated with NOT abandoning a foreign country that you’re helping achieve a particular goal, watch the very last five minutes of “Charlie’s War”.

  • Michael

    I’m sorry, but without a keyboard all you have is a cheap e-reader, a way to deliver pre-packaged content, not learn about computer technology or a creative tool.

    It needs a real keyboard.