Technology

One Laptop Per Child's tablet PC

OLPC's tablet PC may be a pipe dream — but it could force prices down all the same.

Just attempting to distribute millions of laptops to children in the developing world is ambitious enough. But Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of non-profit One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) in Cambridge, Mass., has always had a grander vision. Four years ago, the MIT professor announced plans to build a durable, human-powered laptop for $100, heralding the rise of ultra-cheap netbooks. Now, Negroponte has a new mission: to build a $75 tablet computer that is waterproof, flexible, thinner than an iPhone and made entirely of plastic. Skeptics say the device is a feat of embellishment, not engineering. But as consumers wait for Apple, Microsoft and Dell to unveil their own tablets, it seems like Negroponte may once again be heralding the next big thing in computers.

OLPC’s accomplishments to date would be startling – if Negroponte hadn’t promised even more. In 2005, he unveiled a prototype for a sturdy laptop that could be powered by a hand crank and had a screen that could be easily read in direct sunlight. The computer, later dubbed the XO-1, used flash memory instead of a mechanical hard drive, which reduced both its power requirements and the chance it might break, and boasted mesh capabilities, meaning it could share a single Internet connection among many machines.

Combined with its $100 price tag and do-gooder mission, Negroponte’s machine caught the computing world’s imagination. “Somebody would say, ‘What about the $100 laptop?’ and the conversation would just go. People would be crying with laughter and crying with love. OLPC managed to hit this amazing emotional pinpoint,” says Wayan Vota, editor of OLPC News, an independent website that monitors the project.

But fascination turned to frustration as setbacks swamped the project. In the course of development, the hand crank disappeared and the price escalated, meaning the “$100 laptop” now sells for $172. There were also long delays and problems with distribution. Negroponte originally predicted 150 million XO-1s would ship annually by 2007, but so far only 1.4 million laptops have been distributed in nearly three years of production.

Despite these failures, Negroponte’s vision proved tremendously influential in bringing in a wave of low-priced netbooks. “The real importance in what OLPC set out to do was to say, ‘It’s OK to make low cost your primary goal,” says Ed McNierney, OLPC’s chief technology officer. Before that, “The industry had been going toward having the latest and greatest technology, and then deliver it as cheaply as possible.”

The XO-1 is certainly a success if you measure it by its effect on computer prices. Soon after its launch, Asus, a Taiwanese firm, released a $300 seven-inch laptop and sold 350,000 units in just three months. As of last year, low-cost netbooks accounted for 19.6% of all the portable PCs sold in 2009, according to DisplaySearch, a market research firm. More than 40 million netbooks are expected to ship in 2010, up from roughly 25 million last year.

The question now is whether the XO-3 will do the same thing for tablet PCs. Currently the device exists as nothing more than renderings posted on OLPC’s website, and it’s not scheduled for release until 2012. As drafted by noted industrial designer Yves Behar, it would be the size of a sheet of paper with a green rubber rim and a loop for carrying. It would have a camera on its back and would recharge using induction, doing away with the need for a charging port. But critics, mindful of OLPC’s tendency to over-promise, wonder whether the XO-3 will ever be built. “There’s a huge difference between sketching something in a pad and actually building it,” Vota says.

McNierney agrees that the XO-3 design is currently more of an aspirational statement than technical blueprint, but he says that doesn’t matter. What OLPC wants to do is build even cheaper laptops that are durable and draw less power. If OLPC’s focus on low manufacturing costs happens to spur the widespread development of cheap tablets for everyone, well, that’s fine by them.

“If you want to focus on the things we didn’t do, well, sure, there are lots of things we haven’t accomplished,” McNierney says. “But if you focus on the things we did do – create the net book market, create inexpensive laptops, create a machine that is robust and reliable – those are a lot of things that didn’t exist before.”