Mary Lou Jepsen stirred up a controversy when she left the struggling One Laptop Per Child nonprofit effort in December to start her own for-profit company, Pixel Qi, with the goal to create a US$75 laptop using technologies she invented at OLPC.
Jepsen's departure as CTO prompted critics to accuse her of taking advantage of OLPC's nonprofit inventions for personal gain, but supporters shot back, saying it was the right time for her to leave a listing ship. OLPC has been afflicted by production delays and rising costs over years, with the laptop's estimated price rising from US$100 to US$188. It is now beset by waning orders and competition from commercial vendors like Intel that threaten to sideline the nonprofit effort.
Jepsen denied the allegations, saying her departure was put in place early last year, and that she continues to work with OLPC on developing technologies for future XO laptops, while selling it for a profit to commercial organizations.
Technologies she invented at OLPC include the display system optimized for low-power operation, which has been implemented in the XO laptop.
Retaining the OLPC spirit, Jepsen said Pixel Qi is developing inexpensive products like a power-efficient display that can be used in developing countries. She chatted with the IDG News Service about the new company, the US$75 laptop and her days at OLPC.
IDGNS: How is Pixel Qi progressing? Jepsen: Things are going great. Pixel Qi is now a month old. I've done a lot of startups before, but [Pixel Qi] is a very unusual startup. It's got products to ship already, so that's unusual. It's getting a lot of attention, which surprises me, but it is good that people are interested.
IDGNS: Are you working on the US$75 laptop right now? Jepsen: The US$75 laptop -- maybe people are interested in it because it's a catch phrase -- but mostly it's about designing things for the billions of people that are joining the information age right now. That's what Pixel Qi strongly believes in.
Right now I'm starting this company ... to get a lot of the technologies in [OLPC's XO] laptop into other laptops and cell phones as a first priority. Then working with OLPC to focus on driving that next-generation laptop. But we just started shipping this generation [of XO laptops], we owe it to ourselves to see how the children use them ... and before we start in earnest the design and development cycle to have the feedback from children in different countries.
I'm focused on getting the screens and power management into other people's small laptops and cell phones right now. I think the [US$75 laptop] will happen pretty soon, but again I'm not really focused on the US$75 laptop right now, while the innovations that I'm working on can go into that.
That mimics what we did at OLPC. We thought a lot about [designing the XO laptop] before executing on it. It's a lot easier to redesign on paper. [We are] taking this time and really talking to a lot of who's who in technology about what [the US$75 laptop] should be. But it's certainly possible to go lower price -- if you look, there are US$10 CPUs around.