There are endless examples of everyday portable computing technologies that trickled down from business innovations. But which technologies are moving in the opposite direction? To find out, Mobilizing Biz Apps skipped this week's Consumer Electronics Show. Instead, we looked directly at the extreme laboratory of the One Laptop Per Child organization.
OLPC, based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is a non-profit effort to put very inexpensive, very low-power portable computers into the possession of third-world populations. OLPC's early attempts resulted in a clamshell laptop that runs for several hours on just 5 watts. It hasn't changed the world, but is often cited as one of the early inspirations for mainstream netbook manufacturers.
In about a year from now, around early 2011, the computer will have something oddly enterprise-sounding -- a rubber outer bumper instead of the standard plastic design. That means it could be dropped or drowned and still have a reasonable chance of not breaking. By 2012, the entire computer inside that gasket would be made from a single sheet of plastic with no holes in it.
As in an enterprise company, "A lot of what we do is because of the conditions we're dealing with, which are really, really extreme conditions. It would be great to sort of think about, now that we've done that, why don't we apply this technology to business," says OLPC Vice-President Ed McNierney.
"We sell laptops in places where they've never seen a laptop," and in some regions where no company even makes a keyboard for indigenous languages, so the computer will be all screen, extending to four edges, McNierney explains. There isn't much precedent: the most advanced e-reader devices reported from the Consumer Electronics Show only have screens up to three edges, with the fourth side being real estate to contain internal electronics and external physical controls.
On the power front, the computer's requirements are currently one-tenth of a normal laptop, but OLPC's goal is just 1 watt. McNierney continues: "It's not a matter of battery lifetime. They don't have the electrons. The reason we need to get to that target is that's the amount of power a child can produce with their upper body. ... that's the reason we do it. On the other hand, who doesn't want longer battery life?"
Back in the laboratory, a 4-watt version of the current OLPC system is expected early this year, and a working 2-watt version is expected by the end of this year, McNierney adds. Getting from two watts to just one is not science fiction, but OLPC is still unsure of how to do it. There are some very novel ideas for how to accomplish it, such as putting the microprocessor to sleep between keystrokes.
Chris Hazelton, research director of mobile and wireless at The 451 Group, agrees that enterprise vendors should be paying attention to OLPC's far-out goals -- which may be more useful for a business computer than some of the more gimmicky features being added to modern first-world consumer devices. For example, rather than focusing on interfaces such as multitouch screens
, OLPC could push startups like Plastic Logic and Pixel Qi to commercialize screens that are pliable and won't crack. To some degree it's already happening: Plastic Logic's new Que e-reader device, despite being available at Barnes & Noble, is also targeted at business customers and will even include Good Technology's enterprise email software.
Others are skeptical. Strategy Analytics' Philippe Winthrop, an expert on mobile enterprise development, says that while organizations like OLPC are noble, too many sacrifices would have to be made for corporate vendors to match the low-three-figure prices of consumer products. "Things can be done cheaply, but not that cheaply and still not stink," he says.
OLPC's McNierney does not entirely disagree. "It would be tough to convince Panasonic to sell something for $1,500 when they could sell it for $2,000," he says. Upfront engineering costs are a major obstacle, but OLPC is willing to share its inventions with industry. Still, he adds, some progress is better than no progress: "If we try to do all this and that 3.0 machine we talked about in a couple years ends up costing $125 instead of $75, I'm not going to feel too bad."
The lesson for enterprises and their vendors is simple: rather than getting inspired by a not-yet-announced Apple tablet, businesses may find more useful technology suggestions from a farmer's child in Senegal.