the $100 Laptop
By Mary Lou Jepsen
Early in 2005, I took on the job of developing a
viable path to a $100 laptop.
I met Nicholas Negroponte in an interview at the MIT
Media Lab he founded — but for a different job. After a painful year
at Intel, I wanted to leave Silicon Valley-style industry and return
to the Media Lab as a professor. That was to be the subject of our
scheduled 10-minute interview. Instead we spoke for three hours, not
about MIT, but about the design of a $100 laptop and the
organization that would use them as a vehicle to transform education
in the developing world. I put my professorship on hold, thanks to
an understanding MIT. By early the next morning I decided to join
Nicholas in turning the $100 laptop vision into reality.
We've made tremendous progress in such a short time.
A key moment came on a trip to Brazil in June 2005. President Lula
da Silva changed his travel schedule to meet with us in Brasilia,
where he announced his intention to buy at least a million laptops.
Next came Thailand, Argentina and Nigeria, all wanting at least a
million units. In each case, these countries were instantly attracted
to our low price, well below the cost of the textbooks they'd
replace after five years of use, as well as the promise of access,
literally, to an entire world of information.
By the end of 2005, more than half the countries of
the world had expressed strong interest at the head of state or
minister of education level in getting laptops en masse into their
countries. I visited some of these countries while continuing to
work intensely on the laptop design, and especially spending
considerable effort convincing manufacturers to make the laptop.
We have gotten the world to help. We are fashioning
an organization modeled after the United Nations (UN) — drawing its
strength from its affiliates as much as from its employees, but with
the execution speed of Google. Forming the organization to spur the
$100 laptop has been as exciting as designing the machine.
Last year, lots of people scoffed at the idea of a
$100 laptop, the manufacturers I approached sometimes laughed in my
face. They thought the project was impossible. Yet, I showed them the
path to achieve the price, proved to them that demand was extremely
high, and demonstrated that they could participate and meet their
financial objectives, too.
At the UN summit on the Digital Divide in Tunis in
November 2005, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and Nicholas Negroponte
unveiled the first functional tethered prototype and announced the
United Nations support for the program. By the end of 2005, we
announced that Quanta Computer, the largest maker of laptops in the
world, would be manufacturing them for us.
We accomplished all of this in 2005 with a staff of
only four fulltime people: Nia Lewis, Lindsay Petrillose, Nicholas
Negroponte and me. Exhausted and exhilarated, we then focused
on hiring a great team and completing development. After another
grueling and exhilarating 6 months with a larger team — we are now
10 full-time people strong at One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), plus many other part-time
consultants and volunteers and thousands more at the companies
around the world that have joined us in this effort. We are on track
to ship next spring (2007).
I wanted to share with you two key insights:
You end up in the right place at the right
time much more often when you circle the world constantly.
I've flown half-a-million miles since that morning with Nicholas
Negroponte 18 months ago. We've visited many of the countries
that want to participate — Nicholas more than me. The grueling
travel schedule allowed us to get diverse input into the design
of the laptop, to understand the needs of and the countries as
they sign up, to invent a new display technology solution, to
convince the manufacturers that it was possible to create a $100
laptop, to convince them they should, to get perspective on how
to form an organization that can deliver globally for this
humanitarian effort and to work with our partners closely to
develop and prototype the laptop.
Not-for-profit status allows us to get to
higher volume much more
quickly. The single issue was to
distribute efficiently as
many laptops to as many children as we could. After much
consideration, we rejected the idea of becoming a for-profit
corporation, mainly because it would have been more difficult
for countries to order from us, to deal with tax and duty
issues, and for the United Nations to partner with us, as it has. More importantly, being a non-profit brings us much more
quickly to the enormous scale necessary to reach the low price
point. Manufacturers have responded to our huge volume
requirements. The for-profit route would have been far slower.
Perhaps Microsoft and Intel would have tried to
stamp us out if we'd been a standard for-profit entity. They have
both publicly and privately derided us — but they understand that
we've actually done, as a not-for-profit, something out of reach for
them, and something that may be an essential step for mankind.
What about the machine?
The Chief Strategy Officer at AMD, Billy Edwards,
describes our design of the $100 laptop as the first fundamental
revisit of personal computer architecture since IBM launched the PC
in 1981. Twenty-five years, and now, for the first time, we're redesigning
the whole architecture — hardware, software, display — and we're
coming up with some remarkable inventions and innovations. This is
not a cost-reduced version of today's laptop; it's an entirely new
approach to the idea of a laptop.
Here are some things we have in our laptop that you
may want in yours:
Flash memory instead of a moving hard disk
Display self-refresh (while CPU is asleep)
CPU fast-sleep and fast wake-up (~0.1 seconds)
Massive mesh networking via WiFi
3-4X the range of typical laptop WiFi antennae
(up to ~1Km)
At 2 Watts, one tenth the power consumption of a
Human-power input for battery recharge
Tolerance of multiple power charging sources
like car batteries
E-book mode, in a form factor the kid can take
to bed and curl up with for a good read.
Of course, we've had to make many decisions to take
account for the tough environments the machines will end up in — you
can drop 'em — and they seal when closed to resist water and dust
incursion. We're working on making the design increasingly "green,"
(eco-friendly). Our target: the laptop doing better on an
environmental scorecard than five years of kid's textbooks. We have
also been developing a new battery chemistry that extends battery
lifetime from typical today of 500 charge/recharge cycles to 2000
charge/recharge cycles. These laptops will run on batteries most of
the time, and we want the batteries to last at least five years.
Our Operating System: ~100Mbytes. Windows Vista
requires more than 100X our footprint at 15Gbytes. Which operating
the better basis for agile computing?
How long does it take to boot up an e-mail client? A
Web browser? A writing package? They used to say "Andy Giveth and
Bill Taketh away," meaning despite CPU advances by Andy Grove's
Intel — Bill Gate's Microsoft would effectively make sure you would
spend the same amount of time to accomplish the same task. Well,
with our laptop: AMD Giveth and Red Hat Giveth more. We have
a lightning-fast machine. Our laptops will boot up in seconds with a
feature-rich, collaborative wiki-plus environment.
The display I've devised: a 7.5" diagonal 1200x900
pixel display. That's higher resolution than 95 percent of the
laptops that ship today. It's 200 dots per inch (dpi). It has a
sunlight readable, and room-light readable mode — these in black and
white. Our target: a display as readable as a newspaper with the
backlight off. Then, when the backlight is turned on — the display
becomes color — color resolution is ~800x600 color, and in some of
our designs we can achieve 1024x768 color at very low power
consumption. The entire display consumes about 1W with the backlight
on, and about 0.2W with the backlight off. This at $40 instead of
the usual $130 for a regular laptop display which consume ~7X the
power of our display and is not sunlight readable.
To get a sneak preview and for more information on
the laptop go to www.laptop.org.
Despite the disbelief last year, individuals and
corporations would take our meetings. Both we and they learned in
every meeting. We persevered, and we have gotten the world to help.
Corporate powerhouses are sponsoring this effort. So far, OLPC has
received $40 million of
money and in-kind support from: 3M, AMD, Brightstar (largest
distributor of cellphones), ChiMei (a large LCD maker), eBay,
Google, Marvell (a large wifi chip maker), Rupert Murdoch's News
Corporation, Nortel, Quanta Computer (largest laptop maker in the
world), UL and the United Nations.
The children of the world are going to go online
with our machines. They are our future, our most valuable resource.
This is real, it's happening now. By all means, join us.
Mary Lou Jepsen, Ph.D., is chief technology
officer of One Laptop Per Child (OLPC),
a non-profit association dedicated to researching and developing a
low-cost laptop to be used as an educational tool for the world's
Jepsen is a graduate of MIT Media Labs and a recognized pioneer of
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