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Pixel Qi talks up low-power displays

CEO Mary Lou Jepsen's keynote speech at O'Reilly Media's ETech 2009 conference provokes some critical analysis.

I got an e-mail from the folks over at O'Reilly Media mentioning that keynotes and other presentations from the company's ETech 2009 conference, held earlier this month, were now online at the ETech 2009 site. I missed that show, but I was interested in one of the keynotes, so I surfed on over to take a look.

The keynote I was looking for was indeed online: Mary Lou Jepsen, CEO of Pixel Qi and formerly CTO of the One Laptop Per Child organization, talking about "Low-Cost, Low-Power Computing." You can watch a video of the presentation on or download the PowerPoint slides direct from O'Reilly.

The talk is well worth watching, but it's flawed in many respects. Jepsen still has the over-the-top attitude displayed all too commonly by participants in the OLPC initiative, who often act as if they had actually saved the world instead of merely doing something good for it.

She started out with a series of very squishy claims that overstated the importance of her work, including references to the "digital divide" (a term of propaganda) and statements about how "97 percent of adolescents live in the developing world." Both claims rely on entirely arbitrary definitions.

Jepsen's 97 percent figure in particular assumes that all populations outside "Europe, the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan" are part of the developing world, but of course that isn't true. If I lived in Hong Kong, Riyadh, Shanghai, Tel Aviv, or various other places, I would probably resent Jepsen's implication.

Jepsen singled out power consumption as the most critical requirement for success in laptops for the developing world, but I think an equally strong case can be made for cost, ruggedness, or ease of use. All of these elements must be in place, or the machines aren't worth the effort of deploying many countries approached by OLPC have decided over the last few years.

Jepsen also said that "Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Craig Barrett, and Michael Dell said it was impossible" for the OLPC project to deliver on its early promises.

I don't know that they did, and she didn't exactly cite references. But after all, it was impossible. And, in fact, OLPC did not deliver what it promised: a $100 laptop. It still hasn't done that and shows no sign of doing so anytime soon.

But most of my problems with Jepsen's presentation stem from her claims about technical matters.

For example, she said that the OLPC XO-1 laptop--for which she was the lead designer--is a "1 watt laptop," "more than 10 times lower (power) than the next laptop up."

But the XO-1 certainly is not a 1 watt laptop; on an apples-to-apples basis, it's more like a 4 watt laptop, and the best traditional PC laptops consume only about 50 percent more power--in spite of larger screens, faster processors, and a complete array of external interfaces. The Thinkpad X series (originally from IBM, now from Lenovo) has included several models down in this power range, according to my own laboratory testing.

Jepsen wanted her audience to believe that the key breakthrough in the XO-1 design was the screen, but the fact is that low-resolution, low-quality, low-power displays have been widely available for years. They aren't used in PCs because they don't meet the expectations of PC users. And frankly, the display in the XO-1 wouldn't meet most PC users' expectations either.

Speaking about the component consuming the most power in PC laptops, Jepsen said this: "It's the screen, not the CPU, not the motherboard." But this is not true in most laptops, especially in the size range of the OLPC XO-1, or in most usage conditions. A 12-inch LCD may consume only 2 watts to 3 watts, usually less than the motherboard in the same system. While an x86 laptop processor may consume less than a watt when idle, it will generally consume over 10 watts when busy.

The purpose of Jepsen's remarks was to create the impression that the display has become more important than any other component in a laptop computer, but I don't think that conclusion is supported by the facts.

Why would she want people to believe the display is so important? As she said in the presentation, she's still working to raise funding for her display start-up, Pixel Qi.

It's traditional for CEOs to overstate the significance of their start-ups, but that doesn't mean they ought to get away with twisting facts in the process.

And it's just not necessary, either. As critical as I've been about Jepsen's hyperbole here, I still think that the work Pixel Qi is doing will be valuable to the industry. Pixel Qi does seem to have a very narrow focus, but I certainly appreciate the fact that start-ups have to start somewhere.

From what I can see on the company's site, Pixel Qi's first product will be a 10-inch LCD that appears to bridge the gap between the E Ink display used in Sony's Reader and Amazon's Kindle e-book readers and the LCDs commonly used in PCs and TVs. With both a high-quality reflective monochrome e-book mode and a "fully saturated color" mode, such a display could be a good choice for many small notebook and tablets. In her speech, Jepsen said the company is also working on a low-power (under 10 watts) HDTV screen, which is also likely to be popular.

But more generally, I believe there's still room for plenty of improvement in CPUs, chipsets, and other laptop components, not just displays. I see no reason we can't eventually get $100 laptops, but it'll take improvements in all these areas to get there.