The calendar has switched over to 2008 and so far it has been anything but a happy new year for the One Laptop Per Child Project. First, OLPC Chief Technology Officer (and the first employee of the OLPC) Mary Lou Jepsen announced that she was stepping down as CTO in order to start a new company. Then we found out that a Nigerian company was suing the OLPC over a claimed patent violation. And then at the end of the week it was announced that Intel was stepping down from the board of the OLPC.
If you're the OLPC, you have to be hoping that the old adage of bad news comes in threes holds up and that they've seen the end of this string of mishaps. And if that is the case, just how damaging are each of these announcements separately?
The Intel news is probably the least unexpected. It was always a strange marriage, and one that in my opinion mainly happened because Intel didn't like the bad publicity it was receiving for fighting with the OLPC. Since this marriage was mainly about PR, it was inevitable that it would break up once issues of commitment, integration and cooperation came up.
Right now I'm not sure how bad this is for OLPC. Intel never stopped promoting its rival Classmate PC system even while part of the OLPC, so right now nothing much has changed. What remains to be seen is if Intel will return to aggressively competing and marketing its laptop against the XO in the developing world. After testing both, I found the Classmate PC to be technically inferior to the OLPC's innovative XO laptop, but of course when money and influence enter the equation quality doesn't always win out.
So on the Intel split the verdict is probably not much right now but could have a big effect in the future. But what about Jepsen's departure?
Well, it's never good when someone talented and creative leaves your organization. But Jepsen has said that she will continue to consult and contribute to the OLPC, which basically puts her on the same footing as many other industry talents who have contributed to the project. Most promising is the fact that Jepsen is starting a new company to commercialize many of the innovations of the XO laptop.
Since I first tested an XO, it has been clear to me that the biggest impact of the XO will be its influence on future generations of mobile systems. Its breakthroughs in display, power and wireless technologies provide capabilities superior to those in expensive commercial laptops. With Jepsen's new company, we could start to see many of these innovations make their way into other products in the very near future.
So it does hurt to lose someone like Jepsen, but I don't see her cutting ties with the OLPC. The XO is in many ways her baby and she will want to see it succeed.
Of course, the toughest thing to evaluate is the patent claim case. In general, I'm suspicious of most patent claims especially those that target groups with humanitarian goals.
But as history has shown, anything can happen once patent cases enter the technologically challenged court systems. So this development does bear watching.