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Interview with OLPC's Founding CTO Mary Lou Jepsen, by Sean Daly - Updated
Monday, January 07 2008 @ 08:00 PM EST

Mary Lou Jepsen will go down in history as the founding Chief Technology Officer of One Laptop Per Child. She has recently announced that she is starting her own for-profit company, Pixel Qi, to commercialize some of the technologies she invented at OLPC while extending them. She calls it "a spin-out from One Laptop per Child." And so naturally we had questions. Does this mean we will all soon be able to get an XO-like laptop for adults, no matter where we live? Sean Daly had the opportunity to conduct an email interview with Jepsen, and so we were able to get some answers to that and many other questions.

I'm thrilled to discover that she reads Groklaw, too. And she has a question she'd like to ask you, Pick Your Brains style: "What would an open hardware project look like?" If you have ideas, please leave a comment for her.

I'd like to highlight one of her answers, because to me it sums up very nicely why any school, any government should choose an XO laptop over any other competitor. Sean asked her why she was leaving OLPC. Her answer:

My job is simply done. When I started in January 2005, many people thought was a joke, including Craig Barrett and Bill Gates. I took it from that stage -- just an idea of a $100 laptop -- through invention, design and partnering and to delivery. The laptop is in high volume mass production, it's the lowest cost laptop ever made, the lowest power laptop ever made, it's the greenest laptop ever made, it's the only sunlight-readable laptop on the market, it's more rugged than a Toughbook, it's in the Museum of Modern Art for it's look -- and countries are buying them en masse. For example, 260,000 are going to children in one-room classrooms off-the-grid in rural Peru. The XO laptop requires less infrastructure: it's about 15 times lower in power consumption than Energy Star mandates, and 15 times lower than any other laptop on the market. The Mesh networking extends the reach of a single access point as the wifi signals can hop from laptop to laptop to reach the children living the farthest from the school.

They simply can't beat that. Not Intel. Not Microsoft. They have nothing like it, not even close. I own an XO, and I can tell you, it's also an endearing, charming laptop, one that is enjoyable to use and play with. Everyone I show mine to falls in love with it, children especially. If her new company means we will all be able to get something like the XO, and it appears that is the goal, or part of the goal, this is fabulous news. All of you who were whining that you couldn't buy an XO because you live in Europe, her stated goal for the new company is a 50 Euro laptop.

To give you a taste of Jepsen's background, here's her bio:

In January 2005, she joined with Nicholas Negroponte to lead the design, development and manufacture of the laptop, and for the entire first year of the effort was the only employee of One Laptop per Child. By the end of 2005 she had completed the initial architecture, led the development of the first prototype and signed up some of the world's largest manufacturers to produce the $100 laptop. Incidentally she introduced the first prototype to (with Negroponte) to the then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. He unveiled the $100 laptop at the UN summit on the digital divide to rather large international fanfare which hasn't let up subsequently.

Notably, Jepsen invented the laptop's sunlight-readable display technology and co-invented its ultra-low power management system - and - has transformed these inventions into ready-to-ship hardware, integrated into the $100 laptop. The laptop will start high volume mass production in October 2007. It is the lowest cost laptop ever made and the most environmentally friendly laptop ever made. The laptop can sustain 5 foot drops, is mesh networked, has a new collaborative language-free user interface that leverages the mesh network, and has a new security system that makes the laptop almost impossible to steal.

Previously Jepsen's contributions have had world-wide adoption in successful Head-mounted display, HDTV and projector products. She has been a pioneer in single-panel field sequential projection display systems and liquid-crystal on silicon SOC devices. She co-founded the first company whose sole effort was the development of microdisplays in 1995 (www.microdisplay.com) and served as its chief technology officer through 2003. Until the end of the 2004, she was the chief technology officer of Intel’s Display Division.

Before that, she has created some of the largest-ambient displays ever. In Cologne, Germany she built a holographic replica of pre-existing buildings in the city's historic district...and created a holographic display encompassing a city block. She also conceived, built mathematical models of, resolved the fundamental engineering issues, and solved some of the logistics - to create what would have been the largest display ever for mankind: images displayed on the darkened moon. She co-created the first holographic video system in the world at the MIT Media Lab in 1989, where the interference structure of the hologram was computed at video rates, and shown on her hand-made display. This system inspired a whole new field of holographic video and received numerous awards. Her PhD work combined rigorous theoretical coupled-wave analysis with lab work, in which she created large-scale, embossed surface-relief diffraction gratings with liquid crystal-filled grooves with high diffraction efficiency in un-polarized illumination.

Jepsen holds a PhD in optics, a BS in electrical engineering, and a BA (req.) in studio art, from Brown University and an MS from MIT

She deserves to go down in history for the sun-readable screen alone, in my view. What a wonderful thing. But there's more ahead, because she has said, "I believe that the work I led in the design of the XO laptop is just the first step in changing computing... stay tuned for much more."

Update: You can read an interview Jepsen's husband, John Ryan, did in which she talks a bit about the tech:

JR: Let's talk about the machines that are actually out in the field. How is this laptop's architecture relevant and appropriate to this use case?

MLJ: It's pretty hot in much of the developing world, so we've designed a laptop that can take extreme heat. Part of that is an artifact of it being so low powered. We don't need big electrolytic capacitors whose lifetimes halve every 10 degrees hotter you get. We get to use little tiny capacitors because we've got so little power to deal with, and that's quite helpful.

Also, half the kids in the world don't have electricity at home. Half the kids. Eighty percent of the schools that we're going into don't have electricity. So we had to design a laptop that was also the infrastructure. It has mesh networking, which is the last mile, 10 miles, 100-mile Internet solution. The solar repeaters and active antennas that we've added into the mix cost about $10 a piece and help to relay the Internet. If one laptop in a village is connected to the Internet, they all are....

There's truly so little power in the developing world. If a school is wired, it tends to be on a generator, and there's one 60-watt light bulb per classroom. Generators make really weird power. Usually what comes out of the wall in most countries is 50 or 60 hertz, or somewhere in between. With generators, the frequency of the AC power can go down to 35 hertz. We therefore had to do really interesting power conditioning on the AC adapter. The laptop itself can take between negative 32 volts to 40 volts, and work well with anything from 11 to 18 volts. You can plug a car battery into it. You can plug a solar panel into it. A hand crank can produce enough energy to power the battery for some time, as can a bicycle or a windmill. India has this cow-dung system that creates methane that drives a generator. Even that will work.

On the new company's About Us page, it says this:

I believe that looking at computers in a new, holistic, systemic way, with a clean-sheet approach to computer design - rather than incrementally increasing the horsepower of the CPU - is critical to bringing computing and Internet access to more than the 1 billion affluent who now are its beneficiaries. The key is a new generation of low-cost, low power, durable, networked computers, leveraging open-design principles.

To give you a view of the XO, if you are not fortunate enough to have one, here's an article in eWeek, with some pictures. And eWeek Labs took a look at the Intel Classmate also, and their conclusion, as the title aptly phrased it, was: "Classmate PC Useful but Not in XO's Class". The review mentions that the Classmate comes with a standard power cord, and the battery only lasts a couple of hours, I've heard, which is a problem in countries with unreliable electricity. Here's my favorite picture [scroll down to the one showing all the wires on the floor] of the Classmates in use. The caption reads:

A diesel generator has had to also be installed at the school to allow lessons to continue during the frequent power cuts that blight Nigeria.

Think about it. To use words instead of pictures, here are some differences Jepsen points out to Sean:

Classmate is more expensive, consumes 10 times the power, has 1/3 the wifi range, and can't be used outside. Also, the Classmate doesn't use neighboring laptops to extend the reach of the internet via hopping (mesh-networking) like the XO does. So not only is the XO cheaper than the Classmate, the XO requires less infrastructre expenditure for electricity and for internet access. In Peru we can run off of solar during the day and handcrank at night for an additional $25 or so per student – this is one-time expense – the solar panel and the crank will last 10 or perhaps 20 years. Just try running electricity cables up and down the Peruvian Andes for that cost while making sure it's environmentally clean energy. The Classmate isn't as durable as the XO, and its screen is about 30% smaller, the batteries are the type that can explode and only last 1-2 years and can't be removed by the user and harm the environment. The batteries are expensive to replace: $30-40 per replacement. The XO batteries last for 5 years and cost less than $10 to replace. Finally, the XO is the greenest laptop ever made, the Classmate isn't – this matters a great deal when one proposes to put millions of them in the developing world.

And with that, I'll let you enjoy the full interview:

*********************************

Interview with Mary Lou Jepsen, by Sean Daly

Q: You're turning to a new page in your varied career. What has prompted this change? What will you be doing next?

Mary Lou Jepsen: I'm starting a company called Pixel Qi. Pixel Qi is currently pursuing the $75 laptop, while also aiming to bring sunlight readable, low-cost and low-power screens into mainstream laptops, cellphones and digital cameras. Spinning out from OLPC enables the development of a new machine, beyond the XO, while leveraging a larger market for new technologies, beyond just OLPC: prices for next-generation hardware can be brought down by allowing multiple uses of the key technology advances. Pixel Qi will give OLPC products at cost, while also selling the sub-systems and devices at a profit for commercial use.

Q: The One Laptop Per Child's Give One, Get One campaign in the USA sent tens of thousands of laptops to children in developing countries. I think it's safe to say that many donors are curious to try out a laptop which is so different. I know I speak for many of us, particularly in Europe, who hope that your new position means that an XO-like laptop will be available eventually for us to purchase.

Mary Lou Jepsen: I hope to enable this. I believe that it will leverage economies of scale. When you make more of something, the price comes down – it's the distribution that can be expensive on a single person basis.

Q: Professor Negroponte has often stated that OLPC is an education project, not a technology project. Could you tell us a little more about that?

Mary Lou Jepsen: Exactly. OLPC is an education project, but we needed a low-cost, low-power, networked, rugged laptop. For me it was a way to use my technology skills in the best possible way: to give children with little or no opportunity a chance in life. Now that the laptop is in high volume mass production I feel the best way that I can continue to help OLPC is by setting up a new structure to concentrate on further price reductions in personal computing.

Q: Some were quick to suggest that your departure from OLPC is a sign of trouble at the organization. Is that true, more FUD, or something in between?

Mary Lou Jepsen: My job is simply done. When I started in January 2005, many people thought was a joke, including Craig Barrett and Bill Gates. I took it from that stage – just an idea of a $100 laptop -through invention, design and partnering – and - to delivery. The laptop is in high volume mass production, it's the lowest cost laptop ever made, the lowest power laptop ever made, its the greenest laptop ever-made, it's the only sunlight readable laptop on the market, it's more rugged than a Toughbook, it's in the Museum of Modern Art for it's look – and countries are buying them en masse. For example, 260,000 are going to children in one-room classrooms off-the-grid in rural Peru. The XO laptop requires less infrastructure: it's about 15 times lower in power consumption than Energy Star mandates, and 15 times lower than any other laptop on the market. The Mesh networking extends the reach of a single access point as the wifi signals can hop from laptop to laptop to reach the children living the farthest from the school.

Q: Looking back, what would you say was the hardest part of your work at OLPC?

Mary Lou Jepsen: Hardest part: the travel 80% of the time. We decided to create and then leverage partner companies rather than staffing up. As a result it was key that I be there -- both to find the partners and then to keep them swimming in the same direction. Large manufacturers have billions of dollars invested in their factories; they are risk averse. My main job in Asia was to convince them to take more risk, to find ways around the roadblocks that made this or that "impossible". It means that most of my work is 12 time zones from where OLPC is located in Boston. Exhaustion sets in going round the world every 2-3 weeks for three years. When I was in Boston I would have teleconferences that started at 6:00AM and ran well past midnight nearly every day. Impact, for example -- I went into full-blown adrenal failure on a flight from Taiwan to Boston in late February 2006. The plane had to be emergency landed, and I was rushed to the hospital, I was dying -- and all I could think of was I can't die yet -- I have to finish the laptop first. Luckily I was pumped up on steriods and recovered in about two weeks. I have been more careful since.

Q: What was the most joyous moment?

Mary Lou Jepsen: There have been many, but seeing the first beta version of the laptop roll off the line in November 2006 was the pinnacle for me. I was so excited I snuck a camera on the manufacturing line and snapped a picture -- this was illegal, but I just *had* to capture the moment. I got forgiveness later and promised not to do it again, and I've been good since. Also, I got married just after getting the screen to work in August 2006 -- which was joyous on a personal level -- getting married more than the screen -- but both were exciting. I flew in the furthest for the wedding -- in from Asia with my new screen.

Q: The XO laptop is facing perhaps unexpected competition: the Asus Eee PC which runs on an Intel processor, the Intel Classmate which runs Windows XP (or Puppy Linux, or Mandriva, depending on the market). Is that competition positive or negative for OLPC? For children in developing countries?

Mary Lou Jepsen: Whatever gets more kids laptops is good. If the effect of the bickering is to make the ministry of education delay the purchase of all laptops or computers, then it's bad. We wanted to work together with Intel. I personally tried very hard to make it work, on the technology side some work was starting to come together -- ultimately Intel wants to sell lots of their chips but they get beat up in the market whenever their gross margin drops below about 50%. Fundamentally, low-cost computers aren't about expensive CPUs. The key feature of the CPU as far as I'm concerned is how fast you can turn it on and off in order to save power. Kids don't need a gazillion GHz machine. They need web browsing, video camera, text writing, music, video editing, games, news, logo, etoys – and the ilk.

Q: The world is now very aware of the spoiler role that apparently Intel tried to play. Can you though talk to us about the differences technically between the Classmate and the XO?

Mary Lou Jepsen: Where to start: Classmate is more expensive, consumes 10 times the power, has 1/3 the wifi range, and can't be used outside. Also, the Classmate doesn't use neighboring laptops to extend the reach of the internet via hopping (mesh-networking) like the XO does. So not only is the XO cheaper than the Classmate, the XO requires less infrastructre expenditure for electricity and for internet access. In Peru we can run off of solar during the day and handcrank at night for an additional $25 or so per student – this is one-time expense – the solar panel and the crank will last 10 or perhaps 20 years. Just try running electricity cables up and down the Peruvian Andes for that cost while making sure it's environmentally clean energy. The Classmate isn't as durable as the XO, and its screen is about 30% smaller, the batteries are the type that can explode and only last 1-2 years and can't be removed by the user and harm the environment. The batteries are expensive to replace: $30-40 per replacement. The XO batteries last for 5 years and cost less than $10 to replace. Finally, the XO is the greenest laptop ever made, the Classmate isn't – this matters a great deal when one proposes to put millions of them in the developing world.

Q: If I'm not mistaken, it seems a key difference between the XO and the Classmate is in the XO's mesh networking -- XOs network with each other, allowing children to interact directly, while Classmates are networked through the teacher's computer. Is this the case? Is this an important difference? Why or why not?

Mary Lou Jepsen: Yes, it's a key difference – because you want the children to be able to be on the internet, even when they are home. The internet signals can hop from laptop to laptop all the way to the child that lives furthest from the village school.

Q: From the standpoint of a school in a third world country without reliable electricity, which of the two laptops would meet their needs best, and why? Apparently Intel is giving away generators because the Classmates can only run a couple of hours without recharge and in some places electricity isn't reliable, so I'm wondering what will happen in those schools once Intel leaves.

Mary Lou Jepsen: They are giving away generators? I didn't know that. We use 1/10th the power of a Classmate and so simply don't need use the things that spew noxious fumes as often. They are dangerous, in many places children aren't allowed to touch the generators. They are loud. The XO can use clean alternative energy, a small solar panel or handcrank, a cassette that attaches to a bicycle, other forms of wind and water power, even animal power, in India a pilot school is experimenting with cow power. XO can also use generators – but the generators will go 10 times as far because XO consumes 10 times less power.

Also, generators create power that isn't as conditioned as most wall power, and so Intel will need to do what I already did with the XO: make the AC adapter tolerant to frequencies as low as 35Hz (usually they are at 60Hz (US and other countries) or 50Hz (Europe and other countries). Intel will also need to make their AC adapter tolerant to multi-kilovolt spikes (as I did at OLPC for the XO laptop).

Q: Let's talk about batteries. I don't think any of us are satisfied with the performance of the batteries in our gadgets. Obviously, there has been progress; modern NiMh and LiFePo batteries are intelligent and can communicate their status to host machines. Do you think power is the central problem in portable devices, or are other aspects (ergonomics, form factor, display, software cost, environmental impact) more important?

Mary Lou Jepsen: Yes -- power is the central problem in portable devices.

Q: Children are naturally excited about accessing the Internet, but in developing countries, that access is expensive, particularly in rural areas. How do you think that problem could be solved?

Mary Lou Jepsen: A shared connection via satellite (for example) will have to do with local caching and sometimes waiting overnight for bandwidth heavy requests to be filled (outside of primetime at cut rates for children). There is much that can be done with line-of-sight beaming from village to village -- and high bandwidth connections in the villages and between the villages. In Peru (a place where I'm still helping with deployment) you can even reach the jungles this way because they are close to the Andes mountains and can receive signals quite far away with an antenna at the top of a tall tree.

You know how Asia leapfrogged everyone in cell phone use because they weren't burdened with a landline infrastructure? We were all jealous in the US. Well, just wait until you see what Africa and the Least Developed Countries do with Mesh... maybe we will all want to move there...

Q: I understood that you have one or more patents in screen technology which are in the XO laptop. Are you taking those patents with you for licensing, or do they belong to OLPC? Can you clarify the patent situation for us?

Mary Lou Jepsen: When we eventually filed papers to make the OLPC 501c6 real, we also then started hiring (in early 2006). I then assigned the inventions that I had both already made and would make to OLPC. Pixel Qi -- my new company -- is now licensing my inventions from OLPC. This isn't an OLPC employee benefit, it's a deal I created with OLPC and Pixel Qi, and the benefit will go to OLPC and to the children of the world, lowering the price of the laptops, and thus allowing more kids to get laptops.

Q: It seems you have long been fascinated with vision, visual perception. Your holographic projection work in Cologne and of course the dual-mode display of the OLPC XO laptop are but two examples. During your art studies, were you influenced by Seurat and the pointillists, by the chromatics studies of Ogden Rood, by other artists or researchers?

Mary Lou Jepsen: I was much more into Man Ray (and Bauhaus in general). People don't realize that Ansel Adams was a chemical engineer. Holographers were like him when I was coming of age -- e.g., making their own film and developer recipes and cameras to create what could be just magical. Steve Benton was my mentor; he was a leading researcher in holography who took enormous efforts to teach the artists. In the field of holography you find equal representation from the arts and the sciences. The artists often, very often, figure out how to do things that the scientists and engineers can't. The scientists were always surprised by this, but growing up with it, I find it normal. The human visual system is really very complex, and you can make things appear to be there that aren't and again, vice-versa.

Q: When OLPC began, did they have any idea that they were identifying a new market, one that vendors had never thought about before? Did you have an idea that Intel and Microsoft would play the role they did?

Mary Lou Jepsen: Absolutely. It's been obvious to me for some time. We need to provide computing to more than one billion affluent people in the world. Those people are poor, often lack access to grid electricity -- but they are not stupid. They want the access to information, and it's been pretty obvious for some time that if we can get the price, power consumption and performance right, we can let the whole world into the information age. It's happened with cell phones, but they also want and need access to data computing and creation tools.

Q: Many of Groklaw's readers bought XOs in the G1G1 program, and they are having a wonderful time with them. How can they help the project? What kinds of volunteers are needed?

Mary Lou Jepsen: We need every kind of help -- there is a page at wiki.laptop.org explaining how people with different backgrounds can help.

Q: What is the future, do you think, technically in laptops? In displays? What will our computing devices look like in five years? Ten years?

Mary Lou Jepsen: The big laptop makers have woken up, and there will be a dozen $200-300 laptops on the market in late 2008. I think that the price is way too much. We go higher, I'm starting a company to go lower -- I think that we need a $50-75 laptop in the next 2-3 years.

Also: Touch should not be as expensive as it is, it should be in incremental cost to the price of the display and embedded into the TFT matrix, or the LED light bar itself, and in every layer of the software stack so that it can be used and accessed easily and transparently.

Q: Thank you for taking time from your very busy schedule.

Mary Lou Jepsen: You are most welcome. I read Groklaw as I'm able (it's blocked in China though). Groklaw is one of the best places to go for fantastic high quality content. Keep up the excellent work.


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