A View from David Talbot
OLPC's Peruvian Honeymoon
One Laptop per Child’s former CTO drops in on the Andean nation’s big laptop deployment.
Lima, Peru – When she was chief technology officer at One Laptop per Child (OLPC), Mary Lou Jepsen oversaw the hardware innovations that made the organization’s XO laptop a reality (albeit at $188 instead of the hoped-for $100). In December, with the XO in mass production, Jepsen left to form her own company, Pixel Qi. The company’s goal: a $75 laptop, and the commercialization of low-cost displays and other components, which would be marketed to OLPC and others trying to make cheap, rugged computers.
But before setting to work, Jepsen took a belated honeymoon with her husband of two years, John Ryan. It is no coincidence that their chosen destination, Peru, is on the cusp of the most ambitious OLPC deployment in the world. More than 400,000 Internet-ready machines loaded with course information and tools–including textbooks, Sudoku games, cameras, and software for drawing pictures–are bound for primary-school children in Peru’s poorest regions over the next several months.
Earlier this week, the not-so-newlyweds paid a visit to Peru’s Ministry of Education, in Lima. Jepsen spent two hours with ministry employees who face the task of training teachers who have never used computers, and of overseeing logistics that will include days-long bus and boat journeys to towns perched in high-altitude Andean valleys or flanking Amazon River tributaries. Large-scale shipping of laptops throughout Peru is slated to begin later this month, says Oscar Becerra, the ministry official in charge of the OLPC effort.
Jepsen acknowledged that the challenges Peru faces in reforming its educational system dwarf those of actually designing the pint-sized green-and-white gadgets. “Laptops are easy; education is hard to transform,” she told ministry staff. Later she produced a small Phillips screwdriver from her backpack and dismantled an OLPC machine to review how the backlight, battery, antenna, and other parts can be quickly and cheaply replaced. And she fielded questions, including one about why the laptops’ plugs have no third prong for grounding. (The laptop’s tough electronics don’t really require one, she replied, but it could be added.) “She is like the mother of the newborn, showing how to change diapers,” quipped Becerra.
Jepsen gave Becerra a cloth belt she had bought in Cuzco, intended as an XO laptop strap. Before returning to the U.S., Jepsen and Ryan will visit the Peruvian village of Arahuay, where children have been using OLPC prototypes for several months in a pilot program. Before leaving, she said that her company–which she calls an OLPC spinoff–would keep the focus on low-cost and low-power computing, with OLPC getting first dibs on products. “In the road map for OLPC, [OLPC founder] Nicholas Negroponte has committed to always lowering the price,” she said. “And Pixel Qi is promising that OLPC will always have the best price.”