Thursday, October 04, 2007

One Laptop Per Child

Following on my post several weeks back about Kiva comes another opportunity for people to get personally involved with international development. The oft-discussed $100 laptop is about to be released. The idea was to create a laptop that could be afforded even in the poorest parts of the world. According to the One Laptop Per Child organization:

Extensively field-tested and validated among some of the poorest and most remote populations on earth, constructionism emphasizes what Papert calls “learning learning” as the fundamental educational experience. A computer uniquely fosters learning learning by allowing children to “think about thinking”, in ways that are otherwise impossible. Using the XO as both their window on the world, as well as a highly programmable tool for exploring it, children in emerging nations will be opened to both illimitable knowledge and to their own creative and problem-solving potential.
People in the developed world can donate a laptop or, starting November 11, participate in the "Buy 1, Give 1" program, in which $400 buys a laptop for you and one to be sent to a needy child in the developing world (they never succeeded in getting the price down to the mythical $100, but $200 still ain't bad).

So, what kind of laptop do you get for $200? According to David Pogue, the technology/computer guy for the New York Times, a pretty damn good one:
[It's] spillproof, rainproof, dustproof and drop-proof. It’s fanless, it’s silent and it weighs 3.2 pounds. One battery charge will power six hours of heavy activity, or 24 hours of reading. The laptop has a built-in video camera, microphone, memory-card slot, graphics tablet, game-pad controllers and a screen that rotates into a tablet configuration.


[One Laptop Per Child] does worry that people might compare the XO with $1,000 Windows or Mac laptops. They might blog about their disappointment, thereby imperiling O.L.P.C.’s continuing talks with third world governments.

It’s easy to see how that might happen. There’s no CD/DVD drive at all, no hard drive and only a 7.5-inch screen. The Linux operating system doesn’t run Microsoft Office, Photoshop or any other standard Mac or Windows programs. The membrane-sealed, spillproof keyboard is too small for touch-typing by an adult.

And then there’s the look of this thing. It’s made of shiny green and white plastic, like a Fisher-Price toy, complete with a handle. With its two earlike antennas raised, it could be Shrek’s little robot friend.


The truth is, the XO laptop, now in final testing, is absolutely amazing, and in my limited tests, a total kid magnet. Both the hardware and the software exhibit breakthrough after breakthrough — some of them not available on any other laptop, for $400 or $4,000.

In the places where the XO will be used, power is often scarce. So the laptop uses a new battery chemistry, called lithium ferro-phosphate. It runs at one-tenth the temperature of a standard laptop battery, costs $10 to replace, and is good for 2,000 charges — versus 500 on a regular laptop battery.

The laptop consumes an average of 2 watts, compared with 60 or more on a typical business laptop. That’s one reason it gets such great battery life. A small yo-yo-like pull-cord charger is available (one minute of pulling provides 10 minutes of power); so is a $12 solar panel that, although only one foot square, provides enough power to recharge or power the machine.

Speaking of bright sunshine: the XO’s color screen is bright and, at 200 dots an inch, razor sharp (1,200 by 900 pixels). But it has a secret identity: in bright sun, you can turn off the backlight altogether. The resulting display, black on light gray, is so clear and readable, it’s almost like paper. Then, of course, the battery lasts even longer.

The XO offers both regular wireless Internet connections and something called mesh networking, which means that all the laptops see each other, instantly, without any setup — even when there’s no Internet connection.

With one press of a button, you see a map. Individual XO logos — color-coded to differentiate them — represent other laptops in the area; you connect with one click. (You never double-click in the XO’s visual, super-simple operating system. You either point with the mouse or click once.)

This feature has some astonishing utility. If only one laptop has an Internet connection, for example, the others can get online, too, thanks to the mesh network. And when O.L.P.C. releases software upgrades, one laptop can broadcast them to other nearby laptops.

Power users will snort at the specs of this machine. It has only one gigabyte of storage — all flash memory — with 20 percent of that occupied by the XO’s system software. And the processor is feeble by conventional standards. Starting up takes two minutes, and switching between programs is poky.

Once in a program, though, the speed is fine; it turns out that a light processor is plenty if the software is written compactly and smartly. (O.L.P.C. points out that despite gigantic leaps in processing power, today’s business laptops don’t feel any faster than they did a few years ago. The operating systems and programs have added so much bloat that they absorb the speed gains.)

The built-in programs are equally clever. There’s a word processor, Web browser, calculator, PDF textbook reader, some games (clones of Tetris and Connect 4), three music programs, a painting application, a chat program and so on. The camera module permits teachers, for the first time, to send messages home to illiterate parents.

There are also three programming environments of different degrees of sophistication. Incredibly, one keystroke reveals the underlying code of almost any XO program or any Web page. Students can not only study how their favorite programs have been written, but even experiment by making changes. (If they make a mess of things, they can restore the original.)

What a fantastic idea. If you're looking to buy a computer for your child, why not consider the "Buy 1, Give 1" program? For $400, your kid will get a pretty good machine, and you'll change the life of a child in the developing world. Or, just donate one. Another opportunity for all of us to get directly involved in international development.

International politics is ultimately about making the world a better place. Groups like Kiva and One Laptop Per Child make it easier for us to do so, one person at a time.


Matt Dupuis said...

The head of OLPC is the brother of US diplomat John Negroponte. Little known (but obvious) fact.

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