OLPC to laptop makers: Use our design

Founder Nicholas Negroponte says the OLPC will open-source its hardware design and invite others to copy it, according to a report from the TED conference.

The One Laptop per Child initiative seems to have found that imitation isn't simply a form of flattery, it's grounds for a new business model.

Speaking at the TED 2009 conference, OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte said that the future of the initiative--which set out to put simple, durable, low-cost laptops in the hands of schoolchildren in developing nations--is to become, in essence, more commonplace, to "build something that everyone copies," according to Ethan Zuckerman, blogging from TED.

OLPC laptops in action
Bold colors were a key part of the original OLPC design. Ina Fried/CNET News

That copying has already begun, Negroponte said, pointing to the surging popularity in recent months of Netbooks--laptops built by a range of commercial PC makers with a focus on low cost and simplicity of design. "They didn't copy the right things from us, but they exist," Negroponte said, per Zuckerman. "We had to build the first laptop because no one else would do it."

In the early days of the OLPC, the group's design became famous as the "$100 laptop"--after the target price set for the device--but over time, the price crept up to nearly double that level; the $100 price tag would have to wait for economies of scale that proved elusive. Meanwhile, even before the advent of Netbooks, the price of higher-end laptops kept dropping.

Given the pressure from commercial markets--"It's sort of a tragedy"--Negroponte said that the OLPC would release and open-source its hardware design and invite others to copy it, according to Zuckerman. Within three years, Negroponte expects companies around the world to be cranking out some 5 million to 6 million such machines every month, compared with about a half-million OLPC machines now in use.

Last May , as the OLPC sought broader acceptance--and five months after Bill Gates told CNET News that the "OLPC hasn't done that well"--the group said that it would be working with Microsoft to make a Windows variety of its XO laptop , in addition to the original Linux model.

One month ago, amid harsh economic conditions, the OLPC announced that it would be cutting its workforce by 50 percent and cutting salaries for remaining employees. It also said it would hand off development of its Sugar operating system to the open-source community.

About the author

Jonathan Skillings is managing editor of CNET News, based in the Boston bureau. He's been with CNET since 2000, after a decade in tech journalism at the IDG News Service, PC Week, and an AS/400 magazine. He's also been a soldier and a schoolteacher, and will always be a die-hard fan of jazz, the brassier the better.

 

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