Amid all the rancor between One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) and Intel, which joined the not-for-profit project and then left it last Friday, a new for-profit startup has been spun off from OLPC to commercialize the technology inside the little green laptop designed for children in poor nations. Mary Lou Jepsen, the chief technology officer of OLPC (and a former Intel manager), has left to start Pixel Qi. The idea is to license some of the core technologies inside the OLPC—sunlight-readable screens, a low-power OS, and other sub-systems—to other manufacturers of laptops, cell phones, and digital cameras. That way, these components can reach the manufacturing scale necessary to bring their price down. At the same time, Pixel Qi will make its components available to OLPC “at cost.”
Jepsen explains her low-power, low-cost, green approach to computer design here and states that one of Pixel Qi’s goals is the creation of a $75 laptop. Some of you will recall that the original goal of OLPC was to create a $100 laptop, but that price was later hiked up to $176 and then $188 (if you want to donate a laptop on the OLPC site, it costs $200, with shipping). It seems a bit premature to announce a $75 laptop when we are still waiting for the $100 one. But it is not inconceivable that we will get there in 12 to 18 months.
The bigger issue here is that OLPC is having trouble getting to the scale it needs. Instead of the three million orders OLPC once boasted it would have by the end of 2007, it ended up selling only 162,000 (most of those through a “Give One. Get One” program aimed at socially-conscious consumers in the U.S.). Failing to get to scale as a not-for-profit entity, it appears to be trying the for-profit route with Pixel Qi, who’s stated goal is “leveraging a larger market for new technologies, beyond just OLPC: prices for next-generation hardware can be brought down by allowing multiple uses of the key technology advances.” It is not a bad strategy if Jepsen can find any takers for her technology.
But it makes you wonder whether OLPC would have been better off going the for-profit route from the beginning.
Update: Jepsen just sent me the following note, explaining why she is taking the for-profit route. Excerpt:
I can leverage the economies of scale this way to drive next generation laptops to lower cost and even longer battery life. It’s not
just kids in the developing world that want low-cost long-battery-life sunlight-readable laptops, everyone does. Making more of something reduces the cost of it.
In addition, people want the sunlight-readable screen I invented in cellphones and conventional laptops. Pixel Qi is also doing that.
I’m fresh from CES where 99% of the new products shown just seem like derivative copycats with high price tags. Steve Jobs leads and everyone else follows. But the iPhone and the iPod simply redefined the high end of consumer phones and MP3 players. Only the rich billion or so people in the world can afford these products.
That leaves 5.5 billion people that aren’t being served, although 2B of them now have cellphones. It’s widely predicted that half of all
Africans will have cellphones by 2010. Africans (and everyone else too) would also like affordable laptops. It’s hard to surf the web on a phone, it’s hard to write a paper by clicking out keys on your Blackberry.
The best way I can help OLPC achieve it’s goals is by driving the cost of computers and their components down. While there is a new set of low-cost laptops emerging, really they’re Dells on a diet: nice machines but.. they’re not machines people will fall in love with, machines people will line up to buy.
There are literally billions of people not addressed by these products and it’s not just the price. What we’ve shown, with the One Laptop per Child hardware development I led, is that you can develop products for these billions of people. Products that are just as exciting in their own way: they’re new designs, not just stripped-down versions of standardized, undifferentiated, aging designs. They’re designed for a new set of use situations – not just air-conditioned offices but indoors and outdoors, hot and cold, off-the-grid, in challenging environments, for example – and they’re lower power, and they’re more environmentally friendly than anything else – and – a key lesson from Apple: they are devices people are proud to own and proud to use.
Jepsen is obviously on a mission here that she strongly believes in, and that’s half the battle.