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Working on 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
    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:

  • Instant on

  • 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 typical laptop

  • 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 system makes 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 children. Jepsen is a graduate of MIT Media Labs and a recognized pioneer of display technologies. Comments may be submitted to todaysengineer@ieee.org.

Copyright 2008 IEEE

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