Secret Origin of the OLPC: Genius, Hubris and the Birth of the Netbook

From the moment Nicholas Negroponte showed off his US$100 laptop concept at the Davos world economic summit in January 2005, it was as if the tech world's supermoguls were glowering down on him in judgment. Over the course of the year, Craig Barrett, Michael Dell, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs weighed in, privately declining support and in some cases publicly disparaging the idea.

The naysayers had a point. The mockup Negroponte was toting around that winter was one ugly baby. It aimed to reach the US$100 price tag by having a slower processor, a skinnier internal drive, a smaller body and let's not forget that tent-like rear-projection screen that made it look like the conceptual heir to the pop-top VW Vanagon camper. But after three and a half years, Negroponte's crazy idea hasn't only produced the XO, a real laptop co-developed and manufactured by the world's largest notebook maker, it's also become a product most of Negroponte's opponents are now copying.

After interviewing Negroponte himself, along with his original CTO Mary Lou Jepsen, designer Yves Behar, advanced technologies VP Michail Bletsas and others, we can explain how this proposed global humanitarian effort may in fact be more successful as a revolution in hardware design, and how OLPC will continue to influence the hardware you buy, even if you never score an actual XO.

Negroponte—generally Nicholas, occasionally Nick—is a man who is used to coming up with ideas that people laugh at, only to prove them wrong later. He established the not-for-profit One Laptop Per Child organisation after years of exploring the more general subject of providing computers for the youth in the world's poorest countries, and he is at the centre of any attention that OLPC receives. He has billionaires and heads-of-state on speed dial, and likes to make unusual requests of them. (He may have lacked support from tech's most powerful, but Negroponte's venture had backing from Rupert Murdoch, AMD's Hector Ruiz and others from its inception.)

Sometime in the early spring of 2004, the Negropontes invited Nicholas' MIT colleague Michail Bletsas and his wife over for a dinner of wild turkey—the infrequently eaten northeastern bird, that is, and not the whisky. Shortly after burning Bletsas with the molten sugary part of a freshly baked apple pie during the dessert course, Negroponte announced a secret that had been burning inside him for months: He had dreamed up an ultra-cheap laptop for kids, and he planned to spend the rest of his life working on it.

To say Negroponte is arrogant is to say the Pope has a pointy hat: He founded MIT's Media Lab, for God's sake. He is one of the only people on earth who could have made the XO. But the larger mission of the XO, to become a stimulant of learning and creativity for the world's poorest children before they necessarily have access to electricity and internet connectivity—let alone clean drinking water—that idea has yet to prove itself, and possibly never will.

White Box Syndrome
Negroponte was convinced that you couldn't just go out and buy the kind of laptop he had in mind. Prices are always trending downward, but manufacturers are always countering that by upping specs and adding features. Profit margins remain super-tight, achieved only by reducing costs at the rate of 20% each year.

"There are two ways to make an inexpensive laptop. One way is to take cheap components, cheap labour, cheap design and make a cheap laptop," says Negroponte. "We decided to do the opposite: Cool design and very advanced manufacturing techniques where you pour raw materials in one end, and out come iPods out the other end. That approach is normally not the one taken in the developing world." Typically in poor rural areas, he says, "you see very inexpensive 'white boxes' that are near garbage, both in terms of design and manufacturing."

Negroponte says sending our used PCs to poor countries is the computing equivalent of sending old polluting, gas-hungry cars. Needless to say, computer companies and automakers alike don't generally spend money to design an intentionally cheap product geared for third-world deployment that makes use of the latest engineering breakthroughs and consists of green, easily recycled materials.

The Display's the Thing
The display is the costliest element in a laptop, especially one targeted at $100, so Negroponte knew it needed to be the priority. One of his earliest confidantes (and OLPC board members) was Joseph Jacobson, the man behind E-Ink, so it's no surprise that the highly efficient display tech was an early contender. It failed on three orders, however: Its price never came down—one early target was apparently $12 per screen, eventually revised up to $35—its refresh rate was, and is, too slow for a graphic user interface and colour, a user requirement for this dare-to-be-creative contraption, just didn't look right.Another alternative display option quickly failed as well. In 2004, microdisplay chips like TI's DLP were heralded as the Next Big Thing in rear-projection TV technology, a low-cost, lightweight competitor to plasma and LCD. Intel had just invested a lot of money in a DLP competitor called liquid crystal on silicon, and Negroponte wanted to use that for a cheap pop-up rear-projection screen (shown above). Almost as soon as it was announced, however, the LCOS initiative crashed and burned in a spectacular failure, though not before the LCOS-based $100-laptop prototype was mocked up. (CE companies have discontinued most microdisplay TV lines, though they still use LCOS in many high-performance home-theatre projectors.)

Team Up
The best thing to come out of the failed Intel mindmeld was Mary Lou Jepsen. She had spent a lot of time working on screens, but had never before designed a laptop. In 2005, Negroponte named her CTO and charged her with developing the screen—a new kind of LCD—around which the processor, keyboard, memory and network would wrap.

At that same time, Negroponte hunted for other ninjas of computer engineering to complete his dream team.

Walter Bender, one of Negroponte's closest MIT collaborators, signed on as president of OLPC, concentrating on the software side and its innovative Sugar user interface. (Owing mainly to its own all-too-dramatic arc, we do not delve into the software history at length in this story.) Mark Foster, a former VP of Apple's notebook division, co-captained the hardware initiative; Bletsas managed the innovative wireless network; and others—Mitch Bradley, John Watlington, Richard Smith and Ivan Krstic to name just a few more—all joined in to work countless hours on this radical, ambitious project.

As the technical plan was being hashed out, Negroponte hired industrial designers—first, a firm called Design Continuum, and then, a bit later, Yves Behar—in order to shape both the brand and the aesthetic of the XO itself.

The US team was set; now all Negroponte had to do was find a company willing to manufacture the sucker. It seems it's one thing to persuade a bunch of wild-eyed technologists that it's time for them to try to change the world, but another thing altogether to get corporations, especially ones with stockholders, to drop everything for a charity.

Though the number of advanced degrees gathered together could fill a phonebook, the amount of ego pressure building up in OLPC HQ proved, eventually, enough to blow the roof off.

One Factory, Many Brands
"Early on," Jepsen recalls, "I tried to get one of the largest laptop brands to sponsor the program. They said no. They looked at my design and said, 'This design would require at least 15 miracles and we have this rule around here, one miracle per product. We're going to pass, but keep in touch!' It was a very nice sort of rejection." She adds, "They were dead right, one miracle per product was a pretty good rule for a product. But this wasn't a product, it was a global humanitarian effort."

Today, a handful of companies in China and Taiwan make pretty much everything. One of the names that frequently pops is Quanta, attributed (often unofficially) with building flagship products for Apple, Dell and others. It makes around 40 million laptops per year, at profits of around $20 per machine.

On one hand, this promotes a sort of malaise. Cookie-cutter manufacturing makes sense to Quanta, since less retooling and larger manufacturing lines spell more profit. But these contract manufacturers increasingly design the products they make for others, at least as far as the engineering goes. As one of the world's hottest melting pots for new ideas, Quanta's design centre was the perfect place to take a radical new idea for a laptop. Negroponte knew they might be a little booked, but he had a plan.

Made in Taiwan
Barry Lam is as successful a soothsayer as you can be in modern times. In the late 1980s, he parlayed a small fortune he made from the personal-calculator boom for a venture in the burgeoning industry of laptop computers. Today, he is easily among the 500 richest people in the world, and Quanta, his baby, is the largest laptop manufacturer in the world.

When Quanta announced in fall 2005 that it had won the contract to build Negroponte's $100 laptop, the phrasing seemed a little strange. Quanta had, according to some reports, turned down the project twice before agreeing. Yet the Taipei Times reported that it was OLPC who said "yes" to Quanta: "The decision was made yesterday after the OLPC's board of directors reviewed bids from several possible manufacturing companies," naming contract manufacturers Compal, Inventec and Wistron. How could a total charity case have been at the centre of a corporate bidding war?

The company went on to reassure stockholders that this wasn't a money-losing endeavor. The company said it would benefit by "reinventing cost-saving production" through R&D collaboration with AMD and other companies—a clear indicator of losses in the immediate future.

Back at OLPC headquarters, the story makes a little more sense. Though Lam has yet to turn 60—a mere child by Asian business-mogul standards—he was apparently seeking something more spiritually rewarding than just being best laptop maker ten years running, and something about the proposal finally sunk in. "Lam was concerned with his legacy," says Bletsas. "He liked the product, and he didn't care about the financial aspects as much as he cared about the humanitarian cause."

Negroponte visited him in Taipei; they probably met up in the art gallery Lam set up on the top floor of his corporate headquarters, surrounded by magnificent works of Asian art. After a polite discussion, the billionaire-to-visionary tete-a-tete apparently concluded as follows: "He said, 'I don't care if I'm gonna get my money's worth out of it.' It took a strong founder"—that is, someone who could make an unpopular decision and not catch flak for it—"but he bought on the idea, and said, 'Let's work out the details.'"

It turned out to be a shrewd business decision by Lam. The question—one that may never get a straight answer—is whether or not he knew it at the time.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of the OLPC Untold Story...

Trending Stories Right Now