OLPC faces defections while Macbook Air steals crown as cutest computer

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At the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, I spotted one journalist toting an XO Laptop from the One Laptop Per Child consortium (OLPC). It definitely was a geek magnet, he was always surrounded by crowds taking a look at what, as of early Jan 2008, was the cutest little computer on the block. I saw him giving a lot of demos; Iâ''m not sure I actually saw him doing useful work on the tiny thing, and I never got close enough to ask.

But he probably ought to hang on to his XO; it may turn out to be a limited edition collectors item. The devices are selling, some 600,000 so far, mostly to Peru, Uruguay, and Mexico.

Defections, however, are plaguing the project. Nigeria and Libya, two countries that early on said they were committed to buying at least 1 million units each, have opted out. The organization always knew that â''commitmentsâ'' from governments in the developing world are fungible; still, losing these early partners had to have hurt.

Late last year, engineering whiz Mary Lou Jepsen, the organizationâ''s CTO who designed the laptopâ''s screen, left the OLPC. At the Consumer Electronics Show, she announced that she had founded a company called Pixel Qi to commercialize the screen technology for use in computers, cameras, cell phones, and other mobile devices. The screen is widely recognized as one of the most innovative features of the XO, it has both a reflective black and white mode and a backlit color mode, consumes little power, and is readable in both bright sunlight and darkness. The move is being called a spin-out; says its web site: "Pixel Qi is collaborating with OLPC to continuously and dramatically lower the cost of laptops. There is no competition. Pixel Qi has promised to provide components to the OLPC at cost."

Still, this departure doesnâ''t look like good news for OLPC. And Pixel Qi has announced that, besides selling its screens, it will be trying to develop a $75 laptop. (The current price of the XO is around $180; the target was $100.)

Then Intel, one of the OLPCâ''s corporate partners, left the consortium. No one is pretending that departure was amicable; it was followed by a blast of accusations from project founder Nicholas Negroponte involving Intelâ''s attempting to undercut XO sales.

Meanwhile, at Macworld today, Steve Jobs introduced the Macbook Air, product-air.jpgthe thinnest, lightest, laptop on the block, at least for now. If that journalist at CES wants to keep moving in a circle of drooling geeks, heâ''d better put that XO on a shelf and get a Macbook Air.

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