The Story Behind One Laptop Per Child (OLPC)

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770px-Green_and_white_machineYou might have heard of One Laptop Per Child before; it’s the NPO whose mission is to provide each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop. Why? They want to create educational opportunities, even for poor kids. I can’t think of many organizations, especially in the tech sector, doing something so meaningful and, well, cool! From the hardware to the content to the software, OLPC designs and delivers the whole widget, Apple-style, in a computer called the XO. I’m fascinated by this project so I did what any insatiably curious tech blog editor would do: I contacted the team for an interview to learn more about this world-changing product. To that end, here to tell the story of OLPC is Giulia D’Amico, Vice President of Business Development:

The idea for OLPC originated with Seymour Papert’s work on technology and learning back in the 1960s. (See, for example, his books: Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas and The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer.) It manifest itself in numerous projects over the decades. But it was a project in Cambodia run by Nicholas and Elaine Negroponte that was the catalyst for spinning OLPC out of MIT in an effort to scale these ideas and reach more children.

The original industrial design partner was Design Continuum. They came up with the idea of enclosing the display and motherboard into a “brick”, key to building a robust machine. The transformation between a laptop and a tablet was made possible by a design provided by Quanta Computer. The styling, including the XO logo, was provided by Fuse Project.

Design Continuum explored a wide variety of ideas in 2005, many of which presage features now commonplace in the tablet market. But once we settled on the Quanta transformation design, the concept has not changed much. What has changed is our ability to deliver on the concept: it took some time to achieve some of our initial goals: solar-power, touch, etc.

"The Wrap" OLPC concept designed by Design Continuum.
“The Wrap” OLPC concept designed by Design Continuum.

What made it so extraordinary? Three major breakthroughs: (a) Mary Lou Jepsen’s sunlight-readable display, which meant that the laptop could be used indoors and outdoors (many children go to school outdoors); (b) Mark Foster’s power management system, which enables the laptop to run at an unprecedented efficiency, including the ability to be powered from a small solar panel (many children live off of the electrical grid); (c) Ivan Krstic’s security system (we’ve experienced almost no theft or problems with malware on the computers).

There wasn’t any one major hurdle during the design/build/deliver process; just hundreds of small problems that are typical of designing and deploying any new project. The miracle was that we were abel to do this with a small team on a tight schedule. It would not have been possible without the numerous contributions of the OLPC volunteer community.

OLPC has already had a huge influence on the industry: pushing it towards low-cost solutions; taking the education market seriously; considering low power and the environmental impact of their hardware. The software, which we haven’t discussed, has also been influential. (For example, the security system originally designed for OLPC is now part of every product produced by Apple.) But the real legacy will be on the change in perception about what children can and should do with computers in regard to their education. We faced great resistance when we started: why give children computers for learning. Now the question is how to give children computers for learning.

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