Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Rest of One Laptop Per Child interview

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The first part of the interview is here. Now the second part:

In spite of the initial nearly-universal acclaim of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, critics were quick to point out what they perceived as flaws in the organization the moment that the plan became a reality.

OLPC has seemed plagued by missteps and misfortune, including a lawsuit filed by the patent holders of a Nigerian keyboard, the exit of the company’s chief technology officer, the end of its successful Give One, Get One program, and of course, a very public falling out with its one-time backer, Intel.

In the first part of my interview with OLPC’s Chief Connectivity Officer, Michail Bletsas, we discussed the fate of the Give One, Get One program and how the organization has gauged its success thus far.

In this second and final part, we discuss Nigerian lawsuits, Intel’s shenanigans, and why OLPC never wanted to be in the laptop manufacturing business in the first place.

Brian Heater: You’ve developed a lot of technology that, for the time being, is unique to the XO laptop, and a group in Nigeria sued you for patent infringement over the notebook’s keyboard.

Michail Bletsas: Yeah, that’s completely frivolous. We use X Window on the laptop, and X Window has its own keyboard-mapping technology, which it’s had since the beginning. We have one of the two people who started the X Windows program working for us. What this lawsuit proclaims is that we actually bought a Nigerian keyboard, opened it, and reverse-engineered the keyboard controller firmware, to see how they would map the key presses to key events to fit them into Windows. We are not using Windows, so we don’t care what Windows does.

I understand what they are claiming, but there’s really no basis. We did buy a Nigeria keyboard, because we wanted to see the symbols–what a Nigerian keyboard looks like. We didn’t buy a specific keyboard, we bought the first keyboard that we found in front of us.

The basis of the suit is that you purchased that specific keyboard?

Yeah. Apparently they are doing some custom keyboard keypress mapping. Nigeria has three major languages, and they’re all mapped into that keyboard.

Do you think that OLPC is an easy target, being that it’s a not-for-profit organization?

I think they think we are. This specific lawsuit, I wouldn’t worry. There’s no basis. It’s completely frivolous, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t think there’s any way that they can prove anything, because we really didn’t care about any of their technology to begin with.

If you’re into this kind of work, this does become an issue, from time to time. This is something that is a much more general problem than just OLPC. We don’t have any money, so I don’t think we’re a very smart target. I don’t see why anybody, expect for the ones that are suing us, would want to target us. There is not that much money to get from OLPC [laughs].

You probably don’t have the number in front of you, but do you have a rough estimate of the number of patents you hold on the XO?

I don’t really have the number in front of me, but I would say that there’s probably something on the order of 50 patents on the laptop, and they are all for purely defensive reasons. If you don’t patent your stuff, you run the risk of someone else patenting it.

On that note, the CTO [Mary Lou Jepsen] just left the organization, in order to commercialize one of her patents.

Yes, that has been all over the news. She was the one that enabled the display technology hardware. I have no doubt that somebody as inventive as MLJ can add value to the existing technology in a way that is both monetizable as well as “clean” from an intellectual point of view, and that’s why I don’t think it will be an issue. After she developed the technology, she was sort of idling. I think it’s a good thing that she’s able to work again with the technologies that she really cares about.

We’re in the business of actually focusing on the mission, which, at this point in time, is more software driven, and Mary Lou is not really a software person. People try to read too much into what happened there, but there isn’t too much to read. The attention that it got on the press is not proportional to the impact.

Yeah. We picked it up too. I suppose the reason that it seemed so interesting to us was this idea of someone capitalizing on what was supposed to be a goodwill project.

Yeah, but on the other hand, that’s how technology is innovated. I think it would have been a mistake for us to have made Mary Lou stay. Right now we’re focusing on improving the software and the cost, via the manufacturing. We don’t want to start developing a new machine. We knew that she was leaving. She had announced that she was leaving months before. It wasn’t really a surprise, but obviously, since it coincided roughly with the Intel development, it was sort of amplified.

Was Intel’s input negligible? Going back and reading accounts, it seems that the amount of time that people were putting into redesigning the notebook around an Intel chip was taking away some of the manpower that could have been invested in places.

Intel was doing most of the work, but we did actually put resources into it, and it was pretty disappointing. But at the end of the day, it seems that all Intel cared about was putting laptops in the hands of kids, as long as they were Intel Inside laptops. If they are AMD Inside laptops, they’d rather they not get there [laughs]. Intel’s motives were very much not in line with the organization; at least their departure clears up things a lot.

Beyond the development of their own version of the XO, they did invest some money in the program as well, right?

Yeah, they did invest some money, and they’re still paying us. They have to make a payment on January 31st, and I hope they do, but if they don’t it’s not such a big deal. We’ll survive. There are some pretty important companies invested in us, and one of them leaving is not going to make such a huge difference.

So a large portion of the money right now is still coming from the program’s sponsors?

Right now, yes, for the development and the operation. We are not using any of the money that we’ve gotten from the laptops to finance the operation, right now.

This relates a bit to the Intel issue, and I know Nicholas Negroponte was very vocal on the subject: What’s your feeling as far as competition from things like the Classmate PC?

I think to us it’s very clear. We’re trying to get laptops in the hands of kids, with the lowest cost possible. If somebody can beat us, fine. But don’t treat the kids as a market. Treat them as a mission. In the long term, I think that the market will address… that companies will address the need, because they’ll see that this is actually a market worth going after. It’s very big. But until we get there, the way that this is happening right now is very uncomfortable.

Nicholas uses a good example. It’s like McDonald’s competing with the World Food Programme. If they can go into a village where there is no food and they can sell at prices they can afford, that’s fine, but if the World Food Programme is in place and McDonald’s come in, there is something strange and uncomfortable about that. On the other hand, we understand the point that big operations have responsibilities to their shareholders. It’s complex.

When you say that there’s a potential market in these developing nations, what would have to occur in order for people to actually begin to make a profit?

I think it’s already happening. The fact that when we started this program, Intel was saying, “You’re crazy. All these people need is one high-end PC per village.” And now they’re making the Classmate, and Asus is making the eee, and Everex is making their own machine, and a few other players are moving into that market, I think this is a validation.

People are seeing it as a market, despite the fact that they’re starting from the developed world. There is an emerging low-cost laptop market. I think this is a validation of our original statement. It helps our mission, too, because at the end of the day, we really want to be out of the laptop business, but unless there are a lot of player in the market, we do have a role to play at actually keeping everybody honest [laughs].

So you wouldn’t be averse to distributing the Classmate PC, for example?

Actually, what we’re trying to do is not distribute any PC ourselves. We’re trying to get out of the business of distributing the XO PC. We’re in the education business. We would like to focus more on how to improve education using those PCs, but, in order to get to that step, we have to get those PCs into the hands of kids, and that’s what we’re trying to enable, right now.

We don’t think that we’re the best way for kids to get laptops in their hands, in the longterm, but right now, no one else is trying to do that. But if you can get a few people doing that, we don’t have to do that anymore. We can go back to being a technology provider, licensing our technology, so that the cost goes down.

So ultimately, when you’re out of the laptop business and out of the distribution business, licensing technology is the business that OLPC wants to be in?

Yes, it’s software, and how you learn using those machines. That’s what we want to focus on, and what we’ve traditionally been good at. This is sort of a distraction that we had to take, in order to enable our vision. If we left that to market itself, the market would never pay attention.

Written by Leisureguy

21 January 2008 at 11:35 am

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