Pixel Qi Out to Bring Principles of Inexpensive Laptop Design to Consumer Market: Former One Laptop CTO Mary Lou Jepsen On Her New Startup

If only laptops could run on qi—the spiritual energy that, in traditional Chinese philosophy, pervades all things.

Well, if anyone has come close to making that happen, it’s Mary Lou Jepsen, founding chief technology officer at the Cambridge, MA-based One Laptop Per Child Foundation (OLPC). At the foundation, Jepsen did what computer-industry executives said couldn’t be done: design a powerful laptop for children in the developing world that worked on less battery power, and for less money, than anything the major PC manufacturers could create. Last November, the foundation’s neon-green, rabbit-eared XO laptop went into mass production in China. And on New Year’s Day, Jepsen’s long-planned departure from OLPC became official.

But she hasn’t gone far: the next gig for Jepsen, former CTO of Intel’s display division, is Pixel Qi, a Hull, MA-based startup she has created to design and build components for low-cost information devices that could be sold to consumers right here in the United States, as well as to people in the developing world. Jepsen believes that features she pioneered for the XO—such as the integration of the LCD screen and motherboard, allowing the CPU to shut itself down and save energy when little is happening onscreen—would benefit users everywhere, not just in environments where cost is critical or electricity is scarce.

Mary Lou JepsenJepsen says she’s raising financing for the venture now, and that the first products based on the XO’s “holistic” design philosophy could hit stores as early as the end of this year. We caught up with her on last Friday, when she’d just returned from a whirlwind series of meetings with manufacturers at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. She commented on the prospects for a sub-$100 laptop in the near future, as well as the renewed acrimony between her two former employers—OLPC and Intel—over the giant chipmaker’s own attempt to market a low-cost laptop, the Classmate.

Xconomy: You’re starting Pixel Qi to pursue a new mobile-device design philosophy that you pioneered with the XO laptop. Can you talk about that for a minute?

Mary Lou Jepsen: I’m just back from CES, and I found it bewildering. Ninety-nine percent of the products are unnecessary. The iPhone and the iPod have redefined the high end of the consumer market, but nobody is doing that in the mass market.

If you look holistically at a device, whether it’s a cell phone, a laptop, or what have you, you can make products that are just as exciting [as the iPhone] in their own way—things that aren’t just for air-conditioned offices but that work indoors or outdoors, on or off the grid. But they have to be things that people are proud to own and proud to use. I think we accomplished that with the XO.

How will your designs be different?

MLJ: In order to work with economies of scale, we need to design a family of basic components that can be used by a variety of groups—not just children but adults, not just people in poor countries but people in rich countries. Everybody wants their batteries to last longer. Everybody wants to be able to use their cell phone or laptop or Blackberry outside in the sunlight and still be able to see the screen. It’s basic stuff.

Everybody thinks power is about the CPU, but the most expensive and power-hungry component in a laptop isn’t a CPU, it’s … Next Page »

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

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9 responses to “Pixel Qi Out to Bring Principles of Inexpensive Laptop Design to Consumer Market: Former One Laptop CTO Mary Lou Jepsen On Her New Startup”

  1. Stefan Gustavson says:

    Finally someone decided to take the path less travelled and design for usability, not for raw horsepower. I have been longing for a low power, less-than-stellar performance laptop that doesn’t need recharging every couple of hours and has a screen I can read in sunlight. MLJ, if you pull this off (as I have no doubt you will), you will be my hero!

    As a side note, I don’t think that $100 price tag needs to be a primary goal. If there was someting like an adult-sized XO running a standard Linux distro I would gladly buy it even for $500.

  2. It will be like the man that invented the 100 mpg
    carburator, or the car that runs on water …
    some *big* company will buy MaryLou’s outfit and
    submerge the inventions, and we will see nothing
    this year.

  3. Michael McNeil says:

    Great stuff.

    All you really need in a bare bones lap top is an enlarged Blackberry isn’t it?

    A motherboard, chip, memory screen and battery.

    Is a graphics card needed?

    Is a hard drive needed?
    No, nor a sound card. Maybe not even a separate OS?

    How about the owners supplying their own peripherals such as the keyboard? I hate laptop keyboards. That’s the worst thing about them.

    Well done, that maaaah.. errr.. woman.
    More please!

  4. Nick Alcock says:

    Ramon, that’s crazy. Why wouldn’t some *big* company buy MaryLou’s outfit, sell huge numbers of really cool low-power laptops and eat their competitor’s lunch? Profit matters more than conspiracy to most of these guys.

    (btw, there are pretty fundamental reasons why, absent very compact and cheap nuclear fusion, a car that runs on water is energetically impossible. Even then it’s unlikely: would *you* want a multibillion-degree plasma under the hood? Cars that run on batteries, now *those* are practical.)

  5. Bob Raiano says:

    This is an idea that is so long overdue. As a home computer network configurator, I have seen many times what the high cost of computing can do to limit the adoption of technology applications within the home environment. It is much easier to sell notebook products into businesses because they can swallow the high cost of computing a little easier during good times. Expensive computing platforms are preventing people from bringing the technolgy from the corporate office into the home.

  6. Bob Pianka says:

    This is great! Not more Ghz and bigger OS, design what we need and bring the price down. I agree we don’t need to get to $ 100 as a primary goal.

    Let’s focus on the sunlight readability (I live in Florida and nothing works in direct sunlight).

    Boot up times under 15 seconds (my old Palm was almost instant on and constantly amazed me).

    Super long battery life (and I don’t mean 3 or 4 hours)how about 6 hours.

    You do this and not only will you be my personal hero, but you will sell millions of these. Heck, I’d probably buy them and give them as gifts.

    Keep up the good work!

  7. morgana says:

    Ms. Jepsen,

    I was wondering when would the public be able to buy your laptops.