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Does OLPC have a future in the smartbook era?

December 28, 2009 2 comments

OLPC is widely known as the organization which – indirectly – started the netbook revolution by pioneering affordable, mobile computing devices. The second iteration of their low-cost educational laptop, the XO-1.5,  is about to be released. “Released” in a sense, that it will become available to large scale educational projects but not to individuals or smaller, grass-roots projects. The current lean production cost of the XO-1 is at around $180, the XO-1.5 may go below that if a sufficient volume is achieved. The XO-1.5 is expected to provide full internet browsing with Flash support, ebook reading and the more traditional learning functions of the Sugar Learning Platform. The XO-1.5 will provide a Gnome or XFCE based Linux desktop in addition to Sugar. One of the goals of OLPC to make the XO be able to provide day-long battery life for students (although the current version of the hardware only provides ~3.5-4.5hrs of use with web browsing on wifi.

Smartbooks is an upcoming, low-cost consumer device category. These machines are expected to cost significantly less than current netbooks (sub $200-250 end-user price) while supporting the same functions (full web browsing, ebook reading, playing video/audio). Smartbooks will likely come with Android, full-desktop running Linux operating systems or Windows CE. Since these computers are based on ultra power-efficient ARM system-on-chip designs, they are likely to provide at least day-long battery runtimes (12-16 hrs with browsing on wifi is promised by several vendors).

As can be seen, capabilities and cost-wise, smartbooks coming in 2010 get very close to the upcoming OLPC XO-1.5. Some of the smartbook versions (based on Tegra 2 or other Cortex A9) will way outperform the XO-1.5 in processing power and battery runtime.

Naturally, the comparisson is more complex than this, since the XO has some special features, which are not planned for every currently known smartbook designs. The most notable are:

  • Daylight-capable PixelQi screen for working/reading in direct sunlight. Some of the smartbooks will likely also come with PixelQi screens.
  • Rugged industrial design with rubberized keyboard. There is no currently known smartbook product which puts special emphasis on usage in harsh environment but all ARM designs are fanless and it is likely that a lot of smartbooks will come with smaller capacity SSD drives so smartbooks will be likely less prone to typical laptop failures that the average netbook.
  • Special educational software (Sugar). The Sugar Learning Platform is now available for a set of “normal” Linux distributions as an alternative desktop environment, next to Gnome and KDE, so with minimal effort, Sugar and activities can be made usable on smartbooks as well.

Again, it seems that a smartbook derivative should be able to play the role of an XO in an educational environment.

Two of the huge advantages of smartbooks is availability and economies of scale.They are planned to be available from a host of sales channels, most notably from 3G service operators at subsidized prices. This means, that some of the smartbooks will likely come at zero initial price, only a 2 year data contract will need to be signed. At the targeted end-user prices (sub $250) smartbooks will be immensely popular as secondary home computers and mobile companions (just like netbooks but even more) which means that economies of scale will be reached quickly and prices will go further down.

In contrast, OLPC products are not available for individuals or small projects and currently there are no major project sales at OLPC. This means that there is no easy way to reach economies of scale (unless, suddenly a lot of countries start ordering XOs, which is unlikely). G1G1 programs will not work again, the first was a success, the last one was a complete failure. (G1G1= give 1, get 1 = donate 400$, you get 1 machine for yourself and 1 other machine is sent to the developing world as your donation).

All of these factors point into one diection: If OLPC wants to stay as a relevant IT/educational effort, it should realign its hardware and “business” strategy taking advantage of  the upcoming smartbook revolution.

To a certain extent, this seems to be happening. OLPC is planning to switch to ARM by 2011 with their XO-1.75 product and continue this line with the XO-3 in 2012. There is not much information about the XO-1.75 but it seems that it will be based on a Marvell ARM chip. Since Marvell hasn’t announced plans for Cortex A9 based products, we can assume, that OLPC will use one of the smartbook-oriented Armada (a Cortex A8 SOC).

Software-wise, OLPC has already improved its position by providing Gnome and Sugar as equal desktop alternatives on top of the default Linux OS shipping with the XO-1.5. This way, the XO can be a much more versatile tool when needed. Even Microsoft’s Windows XP is expected to run well on this machine, which may be appealing to some of their prospective customers.

These steps are certainly necessary but I would suggest a much more aggressive startegy:

  • Stopping as much in-house hardware development as possible. Partnering with a smartbook producer, taking a polished, tested ARM Cortex A9 board design without any further customization. I would skip the Cortex A8 processors in order to ensure better performance than the VIA C7-M in the XO-1.5.
  • The industrial design may be kept at OLPC but I suggest scrapping those extreme designs which has been recently circulated for the XO-3. Use a simple, 10″ touch tablet form factor or the current laptop design with a 10″ PixelQi screen.
  • Using a Linux distro already customized for the said board and add Sugar only as an alternative to the default desktop environment.
  • Sell the XOs to everyone in the developed world, ensure the widest possible availability. A $50 donation markup over the costs is reasonable but G1G1 style sales attempts should be strictly avoided. If sufficient sales can be generated, that will make sure that the project stays known to everyone.

This way, a lot of development costs could be spared and OLPC could come up with an ARM based XO product in 2010, long ahead of schedule. A move like this would revitalize the community around OLPC and put the organisation firmly back to the map of relevance.

Categories: gadgets, olpc
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