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One Tablet per Child

OLPC may drop “$100 laptop” in an attempt to develop an innovative $75 tablet computer.

The philanthropic organization One Laptop per Child (OLPC) never quite managed to hit its price point for its “$100 laptop,” but now the organization is sketching a concept for a $75 tablet computer that it hopes will further decrease power consumption and pioneer the first flexible LCD display.

The $75 tablet: This computer-generated sketch shows what the proposed XO-3 tablet computer might look like–if it ever gets built.

“A tablet is simpler than a laptop, so it’s easier to make a tablet cheaper,” says Ed McNierney, OLPC’s chief technology officer. But beyond that basic advantage, he says, the key to achieving super-low cost while also innovating is by working to establish common designs that can be broadly adopted and customized by other companies.

The project starts with processor technology from a commercial partner, Marvell, known for super-low power consumption–potentially as little as one watt, compared to the five watts consumed by OLPC’s flagship machine, the XO. Marvell is already customizing tablet platforms for use in U.S. schools.

Building on this, OLPC wants to add a new screen technology. Starting with its existing LCD technology–which is itself pioneering in that its pixels both transmit backlight for indoor use and reflect ambient light, similar to e-books, for outdoor use–OLPC wants to take it one step further by replacing a glass layer with a rugged plastic layer capable of withstanding impacts and slight bending.

The existing LCD technology pioneered by OLPC is now being commercialized by Pixel Qi, a startup founded by former OLPC chief technology officer Mary Lou Jepsen. OLPC says it aims to produce a prototype of its new machine, dubbed XO-3, in time for the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

To have any hope of success, OLPC recognizes it needs to get away from the go-it-alone model that characterized the manufacture of the XO machine. Only 2.5 million of those have been made –a far cry from the hundreds of millions envisaged by OLPC’s founder, Nicholas Negroponte. This is partly why the final price of the laptop ended up being around $180.

“We don’t have the volume to drive the costs down like we would like,” says McNierney. “The XO has a great display, but we’re the only people on the planet shipping it. By working with Marvell, we hope to come up with a set of ready-to-go reference designs. We hope to drive more volume around those components, and that will help us drive our costs down.” Only then will LCD display makers be likely to invest in expensive changes to their existing fabrication facilities.

A tablet computer holds some practical advantages. Because the keyboard is presented as touch-screen display, like those on the iPhone and iPad, there’s no keyboard for a kid to break. Equally important for an organization hoping to reach kids in remote corners of the world, a tablet also allows unlimited customization of keyboards for minor languages and dialects. The existing XO ships with any of 17 different keyboards, but that’s hardly enough; India alone has 33 languages.

However, there is at least some skepticism that touch-screen controls on a tablet computer will be quite as easy for kids to manage as they write, draw, and otherwise actively engage in creating and collaborating, a hallmark of the OLPC educational mission. “We have a lot to learn about the ergonomics of tablets in the context of the learning activities that children engage in,” says Walter Bender, the former president of OLPC who now runs Sugar Labs, which promotes the user interface, dubbed Sugar, and educational software developed originally at OLPC. “I will need to be convinced that the tablet is the best form factor for creating as opposed to consuming compared to the XO laptop.”

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