OLPC 2.0: towards the US$75 laptop

Even before today’s crop of $500-$800 mini-notebooks became the New Cool Thing MIT’s vision for a low-cost Linux-powered laptop for the third world was reaching for a price point as low as US$100. It never got there of course – the product that evolved into the XO-1 sub-note sells for US$188. Even so it’s notched up some 600000 sales to date.

Now MIT has its sights on a next-gen XO machine dubbed XO-2 which it hopes will embrace new technologies while also bringing the price down to US$75 by the time the model is ready in 2010.

A mockup of the device unveilled this week by MIT founder and OLPC chairman Nicholas Negroponte reveals a substantially smaller and thinner model in which the mechanical keyboard is replaced by a touchscreen onto which a QWERTY layout is drawn by software as a UI layer.

While touchscreen displays are priced at a premium over passive panels this approach would contribute to lowering costs because there’d be no need for separate production runs based on keyboards for different languages – the UI would generate the virtual keyboard layout in whatever format was specified by the user or the operating system’s language settings.

The keyboard could also be customised to deliver a simplified layout for younger children as well as remapping parts of the keyboard for specific applications. The prototype can also be held vertically and used as an e-book and shared between two users at the same time.

“It’s a totally new concept for learning devices” said Negroponte who also touts the XO-2’s reduced size and weight as key advances especially when students in many developing countries face a long trek to and from school. “Being small is very important” Negroponte said. “The (XO-1) is a little too big it’s a little too heavy.” (Seems like Negroponte is not adverse to the old tech industry trick of subtly criticising the old product even while still on sale to push sales and interest in the new product.)

Negroponte is also hoping that the inevitable price reductions in screens low-end processors solid state drives and other key components will play their part in slashing the XO-2’s sticker cost. The XO-2 will also be geared for lower power consumption: the goal is just 1 watt compared to 2 watts for the XO-1 and well upwards of 10 watts for even the smallest conventional notebook.

While the XO-1 was envisioned as a Linux system running a pared-back version of Fedora Linux and a simplified UI called Sugar the OLPC recently struck a deal with Microsoft to offer Windows XP on the XO-1 for US$3 per licence.