New Project Aims to Flood the Market with Tablet PCs

The nonprofit One Laptop Per Child Foundation (OLPC) and chipmaker Marvell Technologies have teamed up with the goal of flooding the marketplace with low-cost tablets produced by other companies. Sounds counter intuitive, but it’s not.

OLPC’s goal is to empower children in the developing world by putting computers in their hands. Cost is the enemy of realizing that goal. “We’re marketing computers to people who don’t have any money,” Ed McNierney, OLPC’s chief technology officer, told TechNewsDaily. Volume drives down cost. A flooded market is a low-cost market.

Volume is a concept that sits well with Marvell as well. The company doesn’t sell computers, but it does sell computer chips. The partnership between OLPC and Marvell is focused on the chipmaker’s Moby tablet reference design, which is powered by Marvell’s ARMADA processor. The Moby reference design is intended to give original equipment manufacturers (OEM) a blueprint or template to produce their own tablet computers.

The more OEMs who join the tablet market based on the Moby reference design, the more Armada chips Marvell will be able to sell. And the more low-cost tablets on the market, the lower the cost for OLPC to manufacture and sell its own XO-3 tablet. It’s a virtuous cycle.

Before joining forces, OLPC and Marvell had been on parallel but separate tracks leading to what they believe will be the era of tablet computing. Last December, OLPC announced that it would produce an XO-3 slate-style tablet device, the long-awaited successor to the X0-1 laptop that served as the foundation’s launch vehicle in 2007. Though that computer was originally billed as the “hundred-dollar laptop,” OLPC was never able to nail that price point; they now sell for $172. Nonetheless, the organization was able to sell about 2 million of them.

The XO-3 will be an 8.5 x 11 inch tablet with a Pixel Qi touchscreen. It will be about half as thick as an iPhone and use OLPC’s Linux-based Sugar operating system. OLPC has set a target price of $75.

In March of this year, Marvell announced its own initiative for the educational market, the Moby reference design that would cost $99 or less and include Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, FM and GPS radios and support multiple software standards including Adobe Flash, Android, Windows Mobile and Ubuntu.

Both tablets will have built-in video and still cameras, multitouch displays and soft keyboards that provide vibrational, or "haptic," feedback to users as they type.

The partnership came about when the companies discovered they were attempting to solve a lot of the same problems. “Our partnership is allowing us to that do that together,” said McNierney.

"We think that Marvell’s support and design expertise will help us deliver an XO-3 faster. It doesn’t change our product roadmap at all. We want to see other manufacturers produce products similar to the XO-3. We want to help Marvell and Marvell’s partners get that family of tablets out there into the world.”

Products coming out of the OLPC/Marvell partnership should be on the market soon, he added. The XO-3 is on track to debut in 2012.

OLPC hopes those commercial products produce the kind of volume that will be the economic tipping point that enables it to meet its low-cost goals. “Continuing to push low-cost computing for laptops and tablets is really important to us,” McNierney said. “We have one big obstacle in our path, and that’s volume. The biggest way we can get the cost down is to grow the volume.”

Though they won’t completely bump the laptop from the OLPC lineup, McNierney said that the tablet computer is the logical next step in the developing counties OLPC targets. Fewer parts help keep costs down and reliability up.

McNiernery doesn’t believe Apple’s iPad will define the tablet category, even though it has first-mover advantage. “It needs to take a few more steps in the direction of being a full, general purpose computing devices where you can create as well as consume content,” he said.

“We as an industry have to make some reasonable progress in that direction before we can declare that laptops are dead and tablets rule the world.”