New OLPC Laptop Will Open Like a Book, Have Two Screens

One Laptop Per Child unveiled the next generation of its XO laptop last month. The new machine is smaller, cheaper, and will open like a book to reveal two touch-sensitive displays.

According to Nicholas P. Negroponte ’66, chairman of OLPC, production of the computer is expected to start in 2010. V. Michael Bove ’83, Media Lab professor and former Tech chairman, is leading technical development.

The announcement was made at an event OLPC called a Country Workshop, where lab staff talked with representatives of numerous countries and members of the press.

The laptop will have no physical keyboard. Instead, users will type on one of the displays using an on-screen keyboard. The displays themselves are being developed by Pixel Qi, a spinoff of OLPC by Mary Lou Jepsen SM ’89.

The organization is also aiming for a bold price point: $75. The current model was popularized as “the $100 laptop” while it was in development. Actually, it ended up costing around $200 when it was finally released.

But Negroponte and Bove are confident that a number of factors will make the second laptop cheaper. Component manufacturers were wary to deal with OLPC during the development of the first XO, Bove said, because sales prospects were uncertain. OLPC now has “a very different relationship with the industry at large,” said Bove.

The OLPC can “piggyback” on the popularity of portable DVD players, Negroponte said, because they have driven down the cost of small widescreen displays like those used in the new laptop. Displays are among the laptop’s most expensive components.

Negroponte plans to market the new laptop as an e-book reader to developing countries. The new machine will acting as a “trojan horse,” he said: People will buy it to act as an e-book reader, but it will also including other educational software.

Negroponte also announced that there would be another iteration of the Give 1 Get 1 program, in which people can pay for two laptops and receive one, with the cost of the other going to send a laptop to a developing country. The program is likely to happen in August or September, he said.

Internal strife marks spring

OLPC has had an eventful few months. A number of its early employees, including Ivan Krstic and Pixel Qi’s founder Jepsen, quit the operation.

Most recently, Walter Bender SM ’80, who served as president of software and content, left the non-profit because of philosophical disagreements. Bender told The New York Times that “OLPC has become implicitly agnostic about learning” and has focused on getting laptops to children. “It’s a great goal, but it’s not my goal,” he said.

But Negroponte says that nothing has changed. During the Country Workshop presentation, he revisited OLPC’s mission statement and said the organization’s goals are the same.

Bender has recently established Sugar Labs, a non-profit organization developing the Sugar educational user interface system that was key to the first OLPC.

Sugar Labs is working to expand the reach of the software beyond just the XO, Bender said in an interview with The Tech. Sugar is already available as an alternative desktop environment for Linux distributions like Ubuntu and Fedora Core. Bender is in informal talks with other laptop manufacturers, he said.

OLPC is still doing development work on Sugar, Bender said, but Sugar Labs will not focus on one particular hardware platform like the OLPC laptop.

Windows to run on some current XO laptops

OLPC also announced in May a partnership with Microsoft. For an additional $3 licensing fee per computer, OLPC XO laptops will come installed with Windows. Explaining the partnership, Negroponte told The New York Times that “[t]he people who buy the machines are not the children who use them, but government officials in most cases.” “And those people are much more comfortable with Windows,” he said.

A dual-boot system was in development, Negroponte said during his Country Workshop presentation. This system would let Windows run alongside another operating system such as Linux. Windows laptops are being rolled out as pilots in four countries, Negroponte said. “It’s going to give you more choice,” he said.

Charles Kane, the former CFO, was announced in early May to be OLPC’s president, a position intended to improve OLPC’s day-to-day management. “I’m the vision department,” Negroponte said during his Country Workshop presentation. But “[w]hen it comes to running something, that’s not my strength,” he said.