One Laptop Per Child
by Ron Lichty
The status of the One Laptop Per Child project revealed to SDForum's Emerging Tech SIG this week by architect Ivan Krstic is even more remarkable than I'd previously heard.
You may remember Nicholas Negroponte and Kofi Annan announced, in 2005, this nonprofit humanitarian effort to change how kids learn, starting with a laptop so inexpensive it can fill the world's children's needs and provide a computer for every child, starting with the billion school-age kids in the developing world. OLPC is targeting an initial unit cost of $150, getting it down to $100 by mid '08.
Ivan said he was recruited with the question, "Can you secure 100 million laptops? Oh, and rewrite the file system? Oh, and by the way, your first users will be six years old." I remember going to Apple when its mission was still just six words, "We're going to change the world." This project has that feeling, in spades. He's one of a core team that until recently numbered only 12 and is still only 14.
Nonetheless, the project has prototype units and intends in the coming year to ship 5-10 million units starting later this year. Ivan says they've been approached by virtually every country in the world.
There's no longer a crank on the computer itself -- but it's designed to connect to a unique pull-cord generator -- like a yo-yo that adapts to the strength of the user; or an outboard crank; or a car battery; or solar cells. Through multiple innovations, it consumes less than a tenth of the power of the typical laptop today. It supports the 802.11s ESS mesh that lets the laptops form into ad hoc networks with or without an internet connection -- but if any one of them has an internet connection, they all do through the mesh. They've measured up to 2 kilometer connection distances via the two bunny-ear antennae, each of which can connect to a different network.
The rubber membrane keyboard is impermeable to dust, sand and dirt in addition to water, and the touchpad is the width of the entire laptop. The dual mode 7.5" 1200x900-pixel display, at 200 dpi, is higher resolution than 95 percent of displays available today and may be more visible in sunlight than any other laptop existing today. It has three USB ports, an SD card slot (added for those countries that insist on adding Microsoft OS and Office applications), stereo speakers, mic and a VGA 30 frames-per-second camera. Inside is an AMD Geode LX-700 0.8 watt, 433 MHz, with 128K L1 cache and 128K L2 cache. They're developing and focused on open source only. The GUI, window manager, security, file system and search were all written in Python.
They're expecting each country to develop OLPC software for the culture and in the languages needed by their children. Right on the keyboard is a "View Source" key -- nothing hidden, no secrets. They're providing foundational stuff like a plug-in architecture to manage software growth and bloat; the file system Ivan was brought in to work on; an object store for user's work, with version control, meta data tracking, pervasive search and ability to sort, filter and display by timeline; presence -- which feature may set a standard that doesn't yet exist for presence; and out-of-box security without requiring passwords or locking down the physical machines.
It's exciting. And it's cute. And as Ivan kept saying, cool as the technology is, it's really about changing how kids learn.