The Cambridge, Mass.-based One Laptop Per Child Foundation arguably launched an industry with its XO-1 Laptop, which first went into large-scale production in 2007. The worldwide buzz generated by the little green machine, which was intended mainly for classroom use in technologically underserved areas of the world, inspired computer makers to build an array of low-cost commercial netbooks. But since then, hardware makers have leapfrogged OLPC -- with Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL) iPad, in particular -- fueling perceptions that the future of personal computing lies in tablet-style devices with multitouch screens.

Last week, the organization unveiled its near-term plans for catching up with the tablet revolution -- but it bears little resemblance to the snazzy, dual-screen device OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte first showed off in May 2008. Instead, the foundation is working with Santa Clara, Calif.-based Marvell Technology Group (Nasdaq: MRVL) to develop a version of Marvell's planned Moby tablet that will run OLPC's Linux-based operating system and educational software.

Marvell announced the Moby as a "reference design" in March. Envisioned to cost $99 or less, the device will have Marvell's own 1-Gigahertz Armada microprocessor inside, and will have a multitouch, high-definition LCD screen. At the website for the Moby initiative,, the company pitches the device as a low-cost alternative to the iPad for students, who could use it for reading e-textbooks. (In a politically savvy pilot program, Marvell says it plans to donate one Moby tablet to every student in an at-risk public school in the District of Columbia.)

Judging from early mock-ups of the Moby -- which will be available this fall, according to Marvell -- the device will resemble a somewhat chunky iPad, right down to the single "home" button on the bezel. Marvell hasn't announced the device's full specs, but says the tablet will include Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, FM, and GPS radios and will support "multiple software standards including full Adobe Flash, Android, Windows Mobile, and Ubuntu." (Ubuntu is a variant of Linux.) Like the iPad, the Moby is expected to have a long battery life compared to a laptop, but unlike the iPad, it will have a built-in camera for photography and video conferencing. Marvell also says the device's virtual keyboard will provide "touch feedback," although it hasn't specified how this will work.

With OLPC's software on board, the Moby tablet should be able to support all the same educational activities the XO-1 does, including the wireless mesh networking that is a key element of the foundation's "constructionist" philosophy for computer-mediated learning. Because it won't have a physical keyboard or many of the other moving parts that go into a laptop, the device may even be more rugged than the XO-1 -- and will certainly be far more power-efficient, running on about 1 watt of power compared to the XO-1's 5 watts, according to Marvell.

In essence, OLPC is piggybacking on Marvell's project as a convenient way to transition into the tablet era, while it continues to work behind the scenes on the XO-3, a far more ambitious tablet design intended to take the XO-1's place by 2012. Conceived by San Francisco-based industrial designer Yves Behar, who also designed the XO-1 and the now-abandoned dual-screen XO-2, the XO-3 would be an 8.5-by-11-inch tablet with a Pixel Qi touchscreen, a ring-shaped grip in one corner, and what Engadget has rightly called an "absurdly thin" profile -- the device would be about half the thickness of an iPhone.

In a blog post, OLPC's Samuel Klein emphasized that the foundation's version of the Moby tablet, which it expects to show off at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January 2011, is "not the XO-3," which "is still planned for 2012."

I e-mailed Negroponte today to ask him how OLPC's move from a laptop form factor to a tablet serves the organization's learning agenda. "Today we are a laptop with a tablet option," he replied. "Tomorrow we are a tablet with a laptop option. The key is: can a tablet be a veritable constructionist medium. We think it can."

In a statement released by Marvell, Negroponte also implied that OLPC sees its version of the Moby tablet as an antidote to the iPad, which has been widely cast as a device for consuming rather than creating media.

"While devices like eReaders and current tablets are terrific literary, media and entertainment platforms, they don't meet the needs of an educational model based on making things, versus just consuming them," Negroponte said. "Today's learning environments require robust platforms for computation, content creation and experimentation—and all that at a very low cost. Through our partnership with Marvell, OLPC will continue our focus on designing computers that enable children in the developing world to learn through collaboration, as well as providing connectivity to the world's body of knowledge."


Wade Roush is Xconomy's chief correspondent.