The $100 (Well, $175) Laptop Goes Into Mass Production

When the One Laptop Per Child foundation won’t even let a reporter in the front door, you know they’re busy.

I stopped by One Cambridge Center in Kendall Square yesterday afternoon to see if I could snag an interview with someone at the project, the brainchild of MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte. I was hoping to ask a couple of questions about the organization’s announcement Monday that it’s initiating mass production of the XO Laptop, the lime-green, rabbit-eared, crank-powered machine it hopes to distribute to millions of children in developing countries where access to electricity, not to mention information technology, is sparse.

That’s a big milestone for the foundation, which has distributed about 7,000 XO laptops to software developers and test classrooms in places like Uruguay and Nigeria, but has said it wouldn’t start mass production of components for the XO until it had at least 3 million orders from participating countries. The announcement that the foundation is pressing ahead brought on a siege of press inquiries—so many, in fact, that I was turned away at the building’s security desk.

So I put in a direct call today to OLPC’s chief technology officer, Mary Lou Jepsen, who has spent the last three years leading hardware development for the XO. “We were a bit swamped yesterday,” she acknowledged.

The XO laptop has been the target of criticism from some bloggers (including the often-abrasive Fake Steve Jobs), and the OLPC got more attention than it probably wanted from the May “60 Minutes” segment highlighting a feud between Negroponte and Intel CEO Craig Barrett. But Jepsen seemed undaunted when I spoke with her. The real significance of the announcement, she said, was not that the foundation has racked up a sufficient number of orders, but that the XO team is comfortable for the first time that “the machine is really ready for mass production.”

While it’s in some sense a simplified version of a standard laptop, the XO “is also a very new kind of machine in many ways,” Jepsen says. So it required an extended period of engineering and testing. “We’ve given it torture tests that far exceed what normal laptops can endure. We believe the batteries will have a five-year lifetime, four times longer than standard batteries. We’ve built in mesh networking, where the laptops themselves are [Wi-Fi] access points and we route the Internet through them, and the rabbit ears increase the range of the Wi-Fi by two or three times. Everything we’ve done is about trying to get the cost down while increasing the functionality for kids in the developing world.”

“We’ve made some pretty stunning advancements, and in the biggest one in my mind is reducing the power consumption,” continues Jepsen. The laptop uses only 1 to 2 watts of power, meaning that about 6 minutes of hand-cranking (using a separate crank and generator) is enough to generate an hour’s worth of battery power. One clever advance: a way to turn off the motherboard when it’s idle. “Most of the time you’re reading or browsing and the CPU is not doing anything other than waiting for the next instruction,” she explains. “We figured out how to leave the screen on but turn the motherboard off without the user noticing. It only takes one tenth of a second to turn it back on.”

But while it’s a beauty of engineering, Jepsen admits the machine isn’t as cheap as she’d like. “People said building a laptop for $100 would never work. And to be fair, we haven’t achieved $100 yet; the price is floating at about $175. But every day I’m trying to trim another 15 cents or 18 cents or whatever I can out of that price. And many electronics tend to get 20 to 30 percent cheaper every year, so we expect to be able to drive the price down.”

The XO’s 800-plus components—which do not include a hard drive or any other moving parts—are being assembled in Taiwan by giant computer-hardware manufacturer Quanta, and the first batch of mass-produced XO laptops should reach children in participating countries this October or November, says Jepsen.

But getting to this point hasn’t been easy for the foundation. “In the beginning everybody honestly thought the whole thing was a joke,” says Jepsen. “I felt like I was the entertainment portion of many people’s days. But then Kofi Annan got on board, and now every country on the planet except perhaps Belgium and North Korea want in. That gave us enough of a push to get some of the world’s largest laptop manufacturers signed up. So we’ve got the hardware going—now we just have to finish the software.”

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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One response to “The $100 (Well, $175) Laptop Goes Into Mass Production”

  1. Trey Klein says:

    I heard about this on NPR and knew that I’d probably be participating in the buy two program: one for yourself and one for a child in a developing country… Thanks for the additional information about the unit.