One Laptop Per Child

Wouldn’t it be great if every child, everywhere, had her or his own laptop computer to use? Not just any laptop, but one specifically designed for children that was rugged enough to withstand harsh environments, did not need constant software upgrades and had an operating system that was easy to learn and came packed with educational software. Well, that is the goal of the One Laptop Per Child project and they already have a few prototypes out there. Today’s post looks not just at the organization, but also at the new possibilities their success may bring and the consequences it could have for some of the world’s poorest people.

TeacherJay has been fascinated with the organization since January 2004 when founder, Nicholas Negroponte who is also director of the MIT Media Laboratory, announced his plans for a $100 laptop. The goal is to make a machine that will be affordable for third-world nations.

The machines are easily recognized by their bright green coloring and “ears” that are actually wireless broadband internet antennaes. Those dual antennaes, along with some integrated software, cause a machine to automatically detect a wireless hotspot and connect to the internet. When another OLPC laptop is nearby, the machines will build an ad-hoc network with each other to share files, send instant messages and even use the same internet connection. The case has a “transformer” hinge that allows the machine to work as a standard laptop, but also fold back on itself as an e-book reader. The keyboard is a molded rubber membrane making it resistant to spills and not as easy to damage. The machines are designed to reduce power consumption – two ways of accomplishing that are a dual-mode display that can be used in color or black-and-white as well as the use of flash memory in place of a hard drive. Earlier models actually had a crank handle that could be used to charge the battery, but that has been scrapped as it is just a tad impractical.

Something OLPC laptops will not have is the clunky Windows Vista operating system. A new interface based on a Linux platform, called XO has been developed specifically for these machines. XO’s biggest advantage is that it is easy to learn and does not need a very powerful computer to run. In selecting software for the machines, OLPC designers remembered that kids learn by doing and business softwares such as Word and Excel are simply not appropriate for them. The machines do come with a Word processor, web browser and a variety of educational programs. While the interface is quite different from anything that mst computer users today are used to, it does provide an alternative that may be better designed for people not used to today’s operating systems. The desktop “neighbourhood” contains a ring of activities and some toolbars around the edges. Some screenshots that show XO’s social functions are available here, and you can watch a demo of XO below:

So… where can the $100 laptop be used? Well, OLPC has designated that its machines be used in third-world countries to expand access to educational resources to some of the world’s poorest people. This is a mission that TeacherJay believes in strongly and why he has chosen to support this project and discuss it on his blog. The low cost and ease of use will allow a learning tool to be in the hands of more children than ever. Selecting a laptop for this purpose makes sense as it is easier to deliver and requires little effort to set up. The case is designed to be durable and the software easy to use without any direct instruction. The machine does not carry the latest technology, but it is still more than what most people have and probably more than they will need. But why is it important for such a project to succeed… well, there are several reasons:

  1. It is spreading access to learning technologies and the internet
  2. It is designed to facilitate communication between people in the creation of a “global village”
  3. It may change our thinking of what an operating system and, in fact, computing, should be all about.

Some critics of the project have cited the small screen, lack of a hard drive and unproven technologies being paid for by third-world nations to be downfalls of the machine. On the other hand, the screen is adequate for most functions, especially as an e-book reader; using flash memory is actually a benefit in that it will use less power, is less susceptible to dust and water damage and impact from being dropped. Furthermore, “unproven” technologies are the way of the world – the best way to test a technology is to get it into the hands of the intended uses and see how they like it. It is sad that some actually want to see the project fail and business leaders such as Intel and Microsoft have only recently come around to support the project – perhaps because they have seen how successful OLPC has already been. Gates even once went so far as to publicly mock the project, but is now having Microsoft issue $3 starter versions of Windows Vista supposedly in an effort to spread computing to more users, but TeacherJay suspects it is just a ploy to retain their stronghold of 90% of computers in the world running Windows. As for purchasing the machines – it is true that the machines could be costly on a national scale, but many philanthropists are donating some big bucks, such as Mexican telecom billionaire, Carlos Slim, to help the project get on its feet. Many bloggers though continue to point out the misfortunes of the project, such as the first shipment being used by students in Nigeria to view porn (thankfully it wasn’t to send e-mail scams), or just general negativity towards the project from people like satirical blogger the Fake Steve Jobs.

In conclusion, TeacherJay sees the project as a wonderful possibility for children of the world. The machines are not ultra-powerful, but do they really need to be?… NO! They need only to run basic software. As an educational tool, TeacherJay can see implementations such as distance education programs for rural students; e-book translations to increase the access to literature in students’ native languages; and even the possibility of having every child issued an OLPC laptop as a tool in everyday life. While the project is not without its own pitfalls and TeacherJay is not so sure the XO interface is the best idea.

TeacherJay intends to post future ideas for the $100-laptop and wants to hear from his readers with their views on the project and what they could envision it being used for. Please leave a comment to this post and see Negroponte speaking about the project at TEDTalks in 2006:


3 Responses to “One Laptop Per Child”

  1. emalyse Says:

    I have a lot of respect for the OLPC project and glad they stuck to their open source OS vision and that Intel responded to criticism for their attempts to derail the project and are now a potential manufacturer partner rather than a self interested competitor(which ,may or may not get the unit price nearer to the original goal and may or may not change). Sadly OLPC probably won’t be able to dictate how they are used. As XO is open source others will be able contribute to the future direction of the project.

  2. TeacherJay Says:

    I don’t think OLPC not being able to dictate how their product is used will be such a bad thing. Look at the history of Apple and the Macintosh operating system. For about 2 decades they restricted its use to only their hardware and their hardware would only run their OS. It crippled the company and the development of the product – sure those who got into Mac loved it, but it never gained the widespread use that Windows did. Although non open-source, Microsoft did allow Windows to be used on any compatible environment.

    For me the beauty of open-source is that people can adapt it for their needs and our encouraged to share. A thousand developers is more powerful than just a handful.

  3. emalyse Says:

    Hello TeacherJay- Just to clarify , I only meant that people will use any technology in any way they see fit and so misuse (pornography etc) is always possible. It depends whether you think the Microsoft model has encouraged true innovation and competition that has advanced the cause of easily available and useful (key point) personal computing.

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