28 August 2007

One laptop perchild dream comes true

This week let us look technology enabling the under-privileged through the One Laptop per Child projects to celebrate the milestone it has reached.

The project

Five years ago in 2002 the idea was proposed by Professor Nicholas Negroponte to develop a low-cost computing machine targeting the under-developed community. With school children as the target community the machine should have basic computing facilities: write essays, do basic calculations, listen to music, watch multimedia, surf the Internet and communicate using emails.

According to its founder, ‘it is an education project, not a laptop project. If we can make education better — particularly primary and secondary schools — it will be a better world.’The project was titled One Laptop per Child (OLPC) and was to be implemented by an US-based non-profit organisation called the One Laptop per Child association. Both the project and the organisation were announced at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in January 2005. Aimed to cost precisely $100 (RO 38.5), the project was a challenge in terms of manufacturing hardware, customising software and viable energy sources.

Project Support

The One Laptop per Child Project has been backed by Intel, Google, RedHat and AMD. In 2006 the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) announced it would back the laptop. Steve Jobs had offered Mac OS X free of charge for use in the laptop but open source software was preferred for customisation. In 2006, the Wikimedia Foundation announced that static copies of selected Wikipedia articles would be included on these laptops. Don Hopkins announced that he is creating a free and open source port of the game SimCity to the OLPC with the blessing of Will Wright and Electronic Arts, and demonstrated SimCity running on the OLPC at the Game Developer’s Conference in March 2007. Microsoft has announced that it is selling a reduced rate Windows and Office package for $3 in certain countries like Africa.

Powered by hand

The XO-1 is a $100 laptop designed to be energy efficient in design, construction as well applications. The OLPC is fitted with a ripcord that can be cranked to generate power for the device at the rate of 10 to one ratio — that is for each minute you pull and crank on the laptop you can get 10 minutes use out of it.The display can be read even in brilliant sunshine without any backlights thus making it suitable for outdoor environments common to schools in the African terrains. With a processor running at 433 Mhz is considered fast enough for the target applications.


As for functionality the XO-1 has several software programs like a web browser adapted from Firefox in addition to educational programs usable in schools. It works in the XO operating system which is a Linux adaptation and a GUI called Sugar, saving on licensing cost as well on the amount of power the chip requires.Data files are saved onto chip on the motherboard instead of in the hard disk. By eliminating the hard disk which rotates like a motor sucking a lot of power, the design has also minimised moving parts to increase reliability. The following productivity tools are available:
- Custom web browser based upon the Gecko engine used by Mozilla Firefox
- Word processor based on AbiWord
- Email made possible through the web-based Gmail service
- Online chat and VoIP programs l Several interpreted programming languages like Logo, JavaScript, Python, etc.
- Music sequencer with digital instruments
- Audio and video player software


According to Chris Blizzard, the designer, ‘OLTC gets connected through miniature antennae which, like FM radio aerials, can be moved to receive the best wi-fi signal. This reduces power usage compared to concealed wi-fi cards, which drain batteries quickly while struggling to receive weak signals. In stand-by mode the laptop are able to act as a wi-fi router for around 24 hours without being charged.’ The engineering team plans to use the laptops to form a mesh wi-fi network to spread net access around remote villages. Each machine relays data to its neighbours until the information reaches a satellite base unit that connects directly to the World Wide Web


More details on this project can be found at the project website at www.olpc.com. For an FAQ on OLPC access online http://wiki.laptop.org/ wiki/OLPC_FAQ. A fact file on the XO laptop can be found at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/ technology/6679431.stm. To watch a video of a $100 pc working get online to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nwqt8NMT-zI. For a video documentary on the project prototype premiered at the WSIS summit in Tunis, get online to http://www.andycarvin.com/video/100laptop.mov. A recent CBS program on this project available online at http://60minutes. yahoo. com/segment/69/ one_laptop.

Final word

A team of US-based resear-chers, backed by a billionaire, have re-invented the computer in an attempt to revolutionise education in the developing world and DO is glad to bring the highlights of this effort to Oman’s readers through this column.