Take a look at the designs for what could someday be the world's cheapest PC, and you may start to wish you were a third-grade child in Burundi.
One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte's non-profit effort aimed at putting cheap educational laptops into the hands of developing world schoolchildren, is working on an upgrade to its so-called XO computer, once known as the "hundred-dollar laptop."
That revamped machine, known as the XO-3 and targeted for release in 2012, is still more of a pipe dream than a product. But early designs for the PC reveal a minimalist slate of touch-powered electronics that drops practically every feature of a traditional computer except its 8.5-by-11-inch screen, a scheme that would shed all of the first XO's child-like clunkiness without losing its simple accessibility.
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"I wanted to bring the One Laptop Per Child identity to life in this new form," says Yves Behar, founder of FuseProject, which designed the both the original and the XO-3. "That meant taking the visual complexity away, bringing tactility and friendliness, touch and color."
Behar says he hopes to shrink the frame around the XO-3's display down to practically nothing, opting for a virtual keyboard instead of a physical one, and no buttons. The result, in his mock-ups, is a screen surrounded by only a thin green rubber gasket. "Nicholas [Negroponte] asked for something extremely simple and practically frameless," he says. "The media or content on the computer will be the prime visual element."
In fact, that new form factor is just the beginning of OLPC's monstrous ambitions: It aims to make its tablet PC highly durable, all plastic, waterproof, half the thickness of an iPhone and use less than a watt of power, despite an 8-gigaherz processor. The price: an unprecedented $75.
Many of OLPC's goals, to be fair, are more imagination than road map. And Negroponte has a history of overpromising. The original XO never hit its original goal of $100, (it currently sells for $172) and another touch screen upgrade to the XO that Negroponte announced in May 2008 was quietly scrapped this year based on costs.
But in this case, Negroponte's plan has a twist: As OLPC assembles the components for its dream machine, it plans to open the architecture of the device to allow any other PC maker to take over the project. Negroponte is more interested in pressuring the industry to make cheaper, more education-focused PCs than he is in manufacturing any specific machine. "We don't necessarily need to build it," Negroponte told Forbes. "We just need to threaten to build it."
Regardless of who puts their stamp on the ultra-cheap tablet, OLPC's biggest task may be getting the various components in line. A typical fragile, glass LCD screen hardly seems a wise choice in the hands of young children, or in countries with unpredictable and scarce electricity. So OLPC hopes to incorporate plastic back-plane components, possibly from Mountain View, Calif.-based Plastic Logic, that would be far more durable. The tablet will also likely use ultra low-power screens from start-up Pixel Qi with both reflective and LCD capabilities, created by former Negroponte disciple Mary Lou Jepsen.
If Behar's design comes to fruition, the XO-3 will feature a camera on the back of the device and a finger-hold ring on the computer's corner. That loop, a metal cable that runs from the device's rim and is encased in the same rubber as the screen frame, can be used to steady the computer in the user's hand or to let it hang at one's side. Magnets in the loop could also be used to keep it tucked behind the machine, out of the way.
Those simple additions are the only departures from the tablet's minimalist design: Ideally, the machine won't even have a charging port. Behar says OLPC wants to use induction to wirelessly charge the battery through its rubber frame. "We wanted to remove all the scars that you typically see on a laptop from Lenovo or HP," he says.
While the tablet isn't slated to appear until 2012, OLPC has other plans in the meantime. An incremental upgrade of the XO set for release in January will have several times the memory, storage and processing power of the current machine. The next upgrade, in 2011, will boost the machine's performance again and replace its AMD chip with a lower-power processor from phone chip maker Marvell.
When it comes to his plans for the $75 dream tablet, however, Negroponte admits his track record of lofty promises doesn't offer much assurance that this latest fantasy machine will appear. But he warns the computer industry not to underestimate OLPC. "Sure, if I were a commercial entity coming to you for investment, and I'd made the projections I had in the past, you wouldn't invest again," he says. "But we're not a commercial operation. If we only achieve half of what we're setting out to do, it could have very big consequences."