Former OLPC CTO: $75 laptop will run Linux and maybe Windows

The co-designer of the original OLPC now has plans for its chief competitor, including integrating low-cost cameras and top-notch displays. Her goal is for the Pixel Qi to be as technologically and aesthetically compelling as an iPod Touch.

Her new ultra low-cost laptops will not be "Dells on a diet," said Mary Lou Jepsen, designer and head of the Pixel Qi project, in an e-mail exchange with BetaNews. Jepsen's Pixel Qi also has plans for low-cost cameras, display screens, and other consumer electronics goods that she hopes will be as technologically and aesthetically compelling as Apple iPods.

The $75 laptops now under development by what Jepsen calls a "spinout" of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project won't be "Dells on a diet," and they will definitely run Linux. But the Pixel Qi is looking at Microsoft Windows and other operating systems, too.

Jepsen readily admitted that -- despite its $75 projected price tag -- the Pixel Qi won't be the only economy laptop available.

The former CTO of the OLPC project, who left her job there earlier this month, admitted she was not terribly impressed with the results of her own former team.

"While there is a new set of low-cost laptops emerging, really they're Dells on a diet...nice machines, but they're not machines people will fall in love with, machines people will line up to buy," she told BetaNews.

"Our approach is to come up with a clean sheet of paper. That's where the exciting products are."

Jepsen is convinced that Pixel Qi can do all of this, although she admits that $75 is just a "target" figure. And she's a person who ought to know. Jepsen has been credited as serving as Intel's "display screen technology guru" before arriving at the OLPC.

Since its inception, OLPC's vision has been to produce $100 laptops for distribution to children. But although OLPC ultimately came out with a low-cost PC dubbed the XO, cost overruns forced its price up to the $200 level.

Jepsen told BetaNews that, during the development of OLPC's first generation laptop, there were certain approaches that she wanted to try, but didn't.

"I couldn't risk it, even though, if I had pulled them off they would have provided dramatically larger price reductions," Jepsen said.

"I deferred these ideas to the next generation, and now undoubtedly, there will be some new ideas we roll up our sleeves and get to work on this laptop."

On Pixel Qi's Web site, Jepsen provides a few other insights as to how the company will keep costs down.

"Spinning out from OLPC enables the development of a new machine, beyond the XO, while leveraging a larger market for new technologies, beyond just OLPC: prices for next-generation hardware can be brought down by allowing multiple uses of the key technology advances," she says.

As which ideas Pixel Qi is considering, Jepsen told BetaNews that they center on technologies that demand low power consumption and are "environmentally friendly."

For the $75-or-so laptops, the start-up is looking at "Linux definitely, and [we're] also exploring Windows and other operating systems," she told BetaNews. But Jepsen said nothing whatsoever about any kind of dual-boot system.

The OLPC's existing $200 laptop runs the Fedora distribution of Linux. According to reports in some other publications, OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte recently said that OLPC and Microsoft have been working together on a dual-boot PC that will run both Linux and Windows.

In denying those reports to BetaNews on Wednesday, Microsoft also admitted that it had contemplated the possibility of a dual-boot PC, and that limited field trials of a Windows XP-based OLPC are still slated for later this month.

Meanwhile, soon after Jepsen left her job at OLPC in January, Intel, her former employer, surrendered its seat on the OLPC's board of directors. Evidently, Negroponte and Intel were squabbling over Intel's sales of its $349 Classmate PC in the same regions of the world where the XO is sold.

For her part, though, Jepsen says she plans to give products to the OLPC at cost, while also pursuing commercial use of Pixel Qi's devices and subsystems.

Jepsen told BetaNews that she's "leaning towards selling the products," as opposed to being what refers to as a "design house."

Also on Pixel Qi's agenda are digital cameras and cellphone and laptop screens.

"I'm working on making standard-size screens for cellphones and conventional laptops, and the first of these could be in stores by the end of this year," according to Jepsen.

In her e-mail exchange with BetaNews, Jepsen also gave praise to Apple for what she sees as innovative product design.

"At the high end of the market for computer and phone we've seen some
exciting new products. But the simple summary is something like 'Steve Jobs
acts and others follow.' The iPhone and the iPod simply redefined the high end
of consumer phones and MP3 players," Jepsen said.

"But there are literally billions of people not addressed by these products -- and it's not just the price. What we've shown -- with the One Laptop Per Child
hardware development I led -- is that you can develop products for these billions of people. Products that are just as exciting in their own way: they're new designs, not just stripped-down versions of standardized, undifferentiated, aging designs," she said.

"They're designed for a new set of use situations: not just air-conditioned offices but indoors and outdoors, hot and cold, off-the-grid, in challenging environments, for example. They're lower power, and they're more environmentally friendly than anything else. And a key lesson from Apple: they are devices people are proud to own and proud to use."

Finally, BetaNews posed this question: Why did Jepsen choose the name "Pixel Qi" for her new company...and what does "Pixel Qi" mean, anyway?

"The name of the company was intended to have the same meaning in English and Chinese. Pixels are the smallest elements of display images, and that's a technical word that means the same everywhere...Qi is an old Confucian notion of the life force, and it reflects the fact that the display -- not the CPU -- is now the most costly and customized part of the computer."

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