Fixing OLPC: Negroponte’s second-gen XO laptop

  • Opinion – Yesterday’s news that we will be seeing a redesigned XO laptop in 2010 has settled in and it has become clear that version 2 of the notebook is not just an update of the first generation model. OLPC has thrown out the entire design idea and is apparently starting from scratch to come closer to the goal of providing a world computer. But a successful XO-2 may need much more than new hardware.

    The idea of the $100 laptop, first announced in November of 2005, was a great idea, which however, has never become a reality. The current XO sells for $188 and is even supported through special programs such as a buy-two- give-one-away initiative. 600,000 XO’s have shipped so far, well below the expectations that this device could spark the deployment of computers among children worldwide and ship millions of units every year.

    The XO-2, unveiled yesterday, reveals a dramatic departure from the XO. The Leapfrog-like design of the system is gone, the new model will look much fancier, will be the size of a book and targets a price of $75 per unit. OLPC also said that XO-2 will cut its power consumption from 2-4 watts down to about 1 watt. The new notebook will have two touchscreens – one of them can be used as a touch-keyboard:  “Dual-touch sensitive displays will be used to enhance the e-book experience, with a dual-mode display similar to the current XO laptop,” OLPC said. “The design provides a right and left page in vertical format, a hinged laptop in horizontal format, and a flat two-screen wide continuous surface that can be used in tablet mode.”

    OLPC said that the XO-2 will be available in green and white colors, but it is obvious, that this new notebook does not look like a toy anymore. Antennas for wireless connections are now invisible and while the organizations aid that a users will be able to use a crank to charge the power of the battery by hand, will remain part of the XO idea, this tool has a much more subtle appearance than before. If the XO-2’s success depends on design, this one looks like a winner.

    However, there was much more wrong with the first generation XO – mistakes that have been corrected by companies such as Asus that are exploiting the market opportunity with devices such as the (increasingly expensive) EeePC. Overall, especially Asus appears to have made the right compromise between price, features and functionality to sell hundreds of thousands of these notebooks every month.

    Even if OLPC has a stronger focus on developing countries, the system needs to have a certain base level of performance capability to run a certain set of applications, which includes, Windows. This of course would also require a set of applications that are tailored for its target markets and to this notebook and are not just stripped down versions of what runs on high-powered notebooks sold in your average electronics store.

    In the end, possible compromises may come down to market positioning: With Asus now hitting the $500 mark with its Eee PCs, there is growing room for a cheap notebook, if it really can be built for less than $100, as Nicholas Negroponte claims. OLPC could also pursue a slightly higher price to create a notebook with more capable hardware and aim for consumers in industry nations.

    Somehow, the XO-2 does not look like a $75 notebook to us and we have our doubts that this goal can be achieved, given the razor-thin margins that exist in the $500 markets of notebooks.

    But it is an intriguing device, even if it should cost $188 like the current XO. This could turn into the cheap notebook we have been waiting for.