OLPC cancels XO-3 tablet, downplays need for new hardware

Design aspects of the XO-3 could be used by other companies, Negroponte says

One Laptop Per Child has cancelled plans to release its XO-3 tablet, although technology from that project could still be used in other products, OLPC Chairman Nicholas Negroponte said.

"The XO-3 is by no means gone. It may emerge in its constituent parts rather than as a whole," Negroponte said via email.

OLPC started off in 2005 as a laptop project and is well known as a hardware innovator, with its first XO-1 laptop being praised for its unique and environmentally friendly design. The XO-3 cancellation comes as OLPC officials say the organization could de-emphasize the focus on hardware design in the long run in favor of education projects.

The nonprofit group announced plans for the XO-3 tablet in 2009 and showed early samples at CES earlier this year. The tablet was supposed to ship earlier this year for US$100, but it was delayed while OLPC finalized the design and sought partners to manufacture the XO-3. The tablet was meant to be a low-cost computing tool for students in developing countries.

The XO-3 was originally priced at $75 and that triggered a backlash, in part because critics said the price was unrealistic. OLPC didn't plan to have the product manufactured itself, as it did with the XO-1 laptop, which too was delayed and eventually shipped at double its promised $100 price tag.

The XO-3 design is still available, and it is more likely that companies use some of the tablet's key technologies, such as flexible power input and charging efficiency, said Ed McNierney, the chief technology officer at OLPC.

"There's a lot of decent tablet technology out there -- it's really a question of putting things together in the right package for the children we're trying to serve," McNierney said in an email. "The Nexus 7 is nice, too, and a more kid-friendly size, and there are other good examples."

The tablet shown at CES had a rugged body, an 8-inch screen and included optional technologies such as a solar charger and support for satellite Internet. It used a display from Pixel Qi that conserves battery life by using ambient light to brighten the screen.

OLPC's priority has always been education and the need to design its own complete hardware systems "may go away," Negroponte said. Tablets are an important learning tool for children, but companies may be able to ruggedize existing low-cost products for use in schools, he said.

"We had to build the [XO-1] laptop, but we do not have to build the tablet," Negroponte said, adding that, "the need for OLPC may morph into something else."

OLPC also designed a hybrid laptop-tablet called the XO-4 Touch, which includes some of the XO-3's features. That product is still scheduled to ship early next year. The XO-4 resembles the original XO-1 laptop but has a touchscreen that can swivel around and fold over the keyboard to make an e-reader.

As an alternative to the XO-3, Negroponte is not opposed to buying low-cost tablets and distributing them to schools. Tablets from companies such as Motorola, which have been deployed as an educational tool in developing countries, have shown good power management and no breakage in rugged environments.

"I am surprised how good they are, as they were not designed for [the] environment," Negroponte said.

Experiments have shown that tablets have made basic learning and computing easier, he said.

"The amazing result is that the kids are showing all the precursors of reading," Negroponte said.

OLPC will continue with hardware design on the XO-4 and beyond for the simple reason that there are now nearly 3 million XO devices around the world, McNierney said.

"That means two things: ongoing support for the existing customers, and ongoing engineering to keep the design current. Existing customers need additional units, spare parts, etc. and that need won't go away," McNierney said.

Components also must be refreshed every 18 to 24 months to keep using readily available parts and to keep the price down.

"That doesn't mean, of course, that OLPC needs to be the organization to do those things in the long run. That's the nice part of being a nonprofit; we do things -- like design hardware -- when no one else is stepping up to do them. If someone else can do them, we can stop," McNierney said.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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