Greener Gadgets: Mary Lou Jepsen on the XO Laptop, Why Being Green Is Easier Than You Think

mary lou jepsen.jpgIn the January 27 issue of The New York Times Magazine, Virginia Heffernan had some advice for Nicholas Negroponte and the One Laptop Per Child Project: add more bells and whistles, more volume and dazzle, to the little machine that could. “If Negroponte wants to convert kids to the global information economy,” wrote Heffernan, “he might consider the chief virtue of the XO laptop: its lights and sounds.”

Heffernan got it wrong. The chief virtue of the XO is not its lights and sounds. It’s the small, lightweight laptop’s ability to retail for a fraction of the price of an ordinary one (the goal is to get it down to $75 by the fall of 2009), to be readable under a blazing sun, to operate on batteries that decompose into fertilizer, to be able to sustain near hourly drops from heights of five feet onto hard floors, to be easily repairable, to bring not only the functions of a laptop but also access to a networked system (the machine itself is a router).

And the relative lack of bells and whistles? Well, that’s by design. A key priority for the developers of the XO, which can be charged by a hand crank, was ultra-low power consumption, complete with a dynamic CPU that switches from an idle (shut-down) state to fully active in seconds to conserve power–hence the lack of lots of flashing graphics and ongoing sounds. As a result, an idle XO consumes about 95% less power than an average idling laptop and exceeds Energy Star requirements–by 15 times.

In light of the shortsighted critiques of Heffernan and others, it wasn’t terribly shocking to hear this statement from one of the XO’s creators at last week’s Greener Gadgets conference: “If we rely on industrial designers to lead the green revolution in electronics and gadgets, we will fail,” said Mary Lou Jepsen, veteran of Intel, formerly the founding chief technology officer of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) Project, and now CEO and CTO of her new company, Pixel Qi. “It’s not just about making things look cool.”

In her design keynote address, Jepsen traced the XO’s development from a project that people called impossible to one that led to the creation of the efficient technology that she is now working to integrate into other electronics. Initially, sustainability wasn’t part of the plan. “I didn’t think we could be green,” said Jepsen. “I was told it would cost $30 more.” The final product ended up ultra-green as a result of being environmentally conscious at every phase of the project–and keeping in mind the low-resource users for whom they were designing.

“All you have to do to be green is to design for the bottom of the pyramid,” said Jepsen. It’s a segment of the world’s population that is usually served by a kind of trickle-down R&D, and one that few companies jump at the prospect of serving. Jepsen told the audience that she couldn’t get the project through Intel, for example, and that OLPC couldn’t afford to use Windows, opting for “skinnied-down” open-source software that would draw minimal power. A turning point came when the project stopped being a product and became a cause, complete with non-profit status. “I learned that I can work a lot faster when I work in high volumes,” said Jepsen, adding that when she was at OLPC, almost every large manufacturer approached her to get the XO’s technology into their products.

Before departing the stage to get back to spreading the Pixel Qi, Jepsen gave the audience of gadget-lovers some food for thought: “If we develop things for the poorest people in the world, they won’t be gadgets anymore.”

Stay tuned to UnBeige for more on the Greener Gadgets conference. Coming later, insights from technoartist and innovator Natalie Jeremijenko and the story behind our earlier allusion to robot geese.