One can easily argue that Nicholas Negroponte's OLPC XO computer predicted the entire netbook phenomenon. Now the company's revealed its vision for the OLPC XO3 in 2012—Is it similarly visionary? You betcha.
Designed by Yves Behar, the XO3 is a totally different 21st-Century beast compared to the classic notebook design of the original XO: It's a super-skinny plastic tablet/slate PC. Suited for its intended use out of the normal comfort zone for PCs, the screen is actually plastic, so it's resilient and slightly flexible. It's also a multitouch device, laden with sensors so it can transform into book-reading or Web-surfing mode. And, just like the original machine it's got a dual-mode screen that works both in daylight or as a self-illuminated LCD (no surprises that the OLPC team has links with PixelQI).
But that 8.5 by 11-inch screen makes this device far from being a curio destined to transform the education of kids in far-flung, poor corners of the world. As does the design, which was driven by Negroponte's request to make the thing "extremely simple and practically frameless." As a result, there's practically nothing separating the computer from the screen, just a thin trademark green rubber edge, a camera on the back and a finger loop for steadying the PC while it's hanging from a belt. The screen and body of the XO3 mean the machine itself practically vanishes when it's being used—the experience is delivered entirely on screen.
And that's exciting. No really—think about it: We know the tablet/slate PC revolution is fomenting just around the corner (and I mean real tablet PCs, not the half-assed modified Windows machines that have been skulking around for years). The design of these things is in some cases like a poorly-remodeled netbook, and in others it's pretty visionary. You might think the most famous of these devices, the fabled Apple Tablet, would be a design-defining classic, like the iPhone—and indeed many people are suggesting that's exactly what it'll be: A giant iPhone.
But the XO3 has stepped beyond this generation of slate PCs and is imagining what they'll be like in a few years. And Behar's and Negroponte's thinking suggests the device itself will be visually irrelevant—one in the eye for the Dells and HPs of today, who love to slather their machines with decals and irrelevant detailing.
The projected price of the XO3 is the other eye-catching feature: The original XO failed to reach its target $100 price—indeed, people laughed at the very idea. And then the netbooks arrived, in droves. So when the team suggests the XO3 will cost just $75, it's worth taking note. With clever component minimization (like, for example, Intel's mashup of CPU and GPU on the new Atom chips), use of resilient plastic bodies and minimalist design, that might be a realistic target.
And at that price, we'll all be carrying a tablet PC around everywhere—maybe a slightly smaller one, for convenience, but the point is still valid. And that has implications for cell phone tech, along with a host of social and cultural implications. It would be sci-fi tech come real, don't you think?