Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Multiple challenges for OLPC

The year 2008 obviously began with strong signals for the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, following the bowing out of its former chief technology officer, Mrs Mary Lou Jepsen, last December.

Also, the withdrawal of its partnership by chip manufacturer, Intel Corporation a fortnight ago was another painful experience.

This sad notes were somewhat thickened by the revelation at the weekend that Jepsen newly formed company, Pixel Qi, is touting to come out with another version of cheap laptop expected to be on offer for $75, about N8,853.

Even as Pixel Qi has developed switching monitors to facilitate computers and cell phones screens to be read in direct sunlight, which would be incorporated in the new products.

The switching monitor is a technology that hitherto was not available, according to reports.

Jepsen latest endeavour was the development of a sunlight screen that could make it easy for computers and cell phones with screens to be read in direct sunlight.

The latest product could be on store shelves by the end of this year, the designer of the breakthrough display technology told Reuters, weekend.

The report also has it that the high-resolution monitors switch from colour to black and white, allowing the screens to be clearly viewed in direct sunlight, a feature unavailable in current high-end laptop computers that cost thousands of Naira.

It was also learnt that she developed the display while still working for the One Laptop Per Child Foundation, which produces low-cost computers for poor children around the world initially known as $100 laptop.

In addition, Mrs Jepsen was reported to have resigned her post as chief technology officer at the foundation at the end of last year to start her own company, Pixel Qi, which will license the display technology.

Noting that her target is that the first batch of the screens would hit the stores before the end of 2008.

Pixel Qi, she added, will further develop and license technology that extends the battery life of laptops by reducing power consumption.

“I don’t want to sell last year’s technology next year,” Jepsen said, adding, “Both the price and performance of display and power management technology can be improved. They need to be made in different sizes and shapes and for different platforms with different goals.”

Analysts said they expect the world’s top computer makers to be eager to incorporate some of Jepsen’s technology into their products as easily readable displays and long-lasting batteries are highly coveted features for any laptop.

In a related report, Pixel Qi was said to have commenced attempts at producing even more cheaper laptops than OLPC XO-1 series, which is currently at $188, over N22,000 and is a spin off of the previous $100 initiative, plans to sell its own laptop at $75 only.

Acknowledging this fact, Pixel Qi in a press statement, cited the use of ultra-low-cost laptop as an inspiration for a new sort of hardware design that encourages starting with a clean sheet rather than trying to re-invent the wheel.

The company indicated that prices for the next-generation hardware could be brought down by allowing multiple uses of the key advanced technologies.

Pixel Qi also informed that it would offer its products to OLPC at a cost, while also selling the sub-systems and devices at a profit for commercial use.

However, no official release date or projection has been made public for the launch of Pixel Qi $75 laptop,

Analysts are waiting to see if when eventually Pixel Qi hits market whether it would stick to the introductory price of $75.

On the other hand, chip maker, Intel Corporation fortnight ago bowed out of the OLPC board, probably as a New Year gift to the foundation.

A step analysts said was another heavy blow to the project and its mission of making laptops available to children of school age in developing countries including Nigeria, where its proposal has been accepted.

The Intel exit described as ‘dramatic’ was hinged on what the company said was ‘philosophical’ differences as its main reason for backing out of the project.

Nigeria currently is having trail of some OLPC machines at the various nationwide and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) after paying fully for its 1 million units earlier ordered.

The OLPC is a United States-based non-profit making organisation with focus to drive laptops initially at a cost of $100 per PC but have since escalated to over $200, about (N28,000), even as Federal Government recently expressed dismay over the modules of producing the so-called $100 laptops, alleging that it could turn the nation’s schools into dumping grounds.

According to BBC reports, Intel pulled out of the project through its hitherto funding and technical support.

Noteworthy is that the first versions of the OLPC or XO laptop were powered by a chip made by Intel’s archrival AMD.

The green and white XO machine was designed specifically for children, and supposedly made rugged to cope with conditions in developing nations and could be kept powered using a hand crank.

Intel spokesman, Mr. Chuck Molly was quoted as saying the company had taken the decision to resign from the OLPC board and end its involvement because the organisation had asked it to stop backing rival low-cost laptops.

On the OLPC board with Intel are 11 other companies including Google and Red Hat among others.

In addition, Intel has been promoting its own cheap laptop, Classmate PC, in many of the same places as the OLPC and with the intent for Pixel Qi to emerge, the tragedy is too many too soon and may affect the penetration negatively.

Mr. Chuck said that OLPC had asked Intel to end its support for non-OLPC platforms, including the Classmate PC, and to focus on the OLPC platform exclusively, hence the decision to quit since it cannot stomach the request.

He equally said that the use of AMD chips in the first XO laptops had not influenced its decision.

Prior to Intel’s involvement, OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte criticised the chip firm for what he called its attempts to undermine the project’s work.

He said Intel was selling its Classmate PC at a loss to make the XO laptop less attractive.

While Dr Negroponte’s initial aim was for a laptop costing only $100, the final versions under-going trials in Nigeria and Uruguay cost $188 (£95).

Costs were supposed to be kept low by governments ordering the XO laptop in shipments of one million, but large orders for the XO laptop have, so far, not materialised.

In a bid to boost the numbers of laptops available, OLPC ran a “Give One, Get One” programme in the US from 12 November to 31 December.

This allowed members of the public to buy two XO machines - one for themselves and one for a OLPC project elsewhere, even as it said the success of this campaign had paved the way for its launch in Haiti, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Cambodia, Mongolia, and Afghanistan.

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