April 5, 2006

LinuxWorld keynote: One Laptop Per Child

Author: Nathan Willis

Nicholas Negroponte, MIT professor and founder of One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), delivered the keynote address at the Boston LinuxWorld Conference and Expo yesterday. One Laptop Per Child is the non-profit association behind what is commonly called "the $100 laptop" -- an initiative to deliver portable computers and mesh networking to schoolchildren in developing countries.

The OLPC initiative aims to fight poverty in developing nations by jumpstarting children's education. Providing computers to schools and children not only equips them for traditional curriculum, Negroponte says, but it empowers them in ways non-computer learning cannot -- connecting them with programming and computer science enables them to "think about thinking," as he puts it. He cites examples from both United States and overseas programs over the last 20 years where computers for schoolchildren have achieved amazing results, on a small scale that OLPC will dwarf.

Negroponte began by responding to recent criticisms of the project, including public comments by Bill Gates that the specifications of the laptops (which are still under development) are underpowered. Slim and trim does not mean the same thing as weak, Negroponte remarked, observing that the 500MHz processors planned for the devices were top-of-the-line just five years ago. Furthermore, he added, every increase in processing power seems to be met with an equal or greater increase in system requirements from Microsoft.

Red Hat is a partner in the program, providing an operating system at well below Microsoft's price, but Negroponte says that only 25% of the price for a typical new laptop goes to the OS vendor. A much larger chunk -- closer to 50% -- is consumed by sales and marketing overhead, distribution costs, and corporate profit.

OLPC, by contrast, has zero marketing overhead and very low distribution costs; it has single-order deals directly with the central governments of the seven nations included in the first phase of its rollout -- China, India, Thailand, Egypt, Nigeria, Brazil, and Argentina.

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The biggest remaining cost factor is a laptop is the display, a component that OLPC deems critical. The display need not meet the high-end specs of most consumer and business models. The OLPC laptops' display is seven-inch, dual-mode (transmissive in backlight mode, but reflective in sunlight like "e-ink" products) 4x3 aspect ratio screen that can operate in color at 640x480 or in black and white at 1110x830.

Despite its unique features, Negroponte insists that the enormous scale of the OLPC project allows the organization to purchase displays cheaply. He noted anecdotally that when he brought the requirements to one manufacturer, their people declined to bid, claiming that it did not match their "strategic plans" -- but they were willing to alter their strategic plan when the 100-million-unit order size entered the conversation.

Phase one of the rollout is scheduled for the first quarter of 2007, at which point OLPC expects the laptops to cost approximately $135 each. As hardware prices trend downward, however, the cost will drop -- Negroponte estimates that the laptops will cost $50 each by 2010.

Negroponte spent the last 20 minutes of his time taking questions from the audience. In response to one, he elaborated on the networking capabilities of the machines. Since the program will be implemented in conjunction with pubic schools, each school will receive a low-cost server and (where necessary) a satellite Internet backbone connection. Each laptop will be equipped with wireless mesh networking hardware to extend the range of the school's server, and the networking hardware will continue to run even when the laptops are switched off, so that they may act as routers for other participants.

Finally, Negroponte answered two questions from audience members interested in how to get involved in the project or something similar to it for their own community. Although the first phase of the project rollout will consist of OLPC dealing directly with national governments, he said, a second phase will allow individuals to subsidize laptops -- perhaps purchasing one for $300 that would then sponsor two or more in developing countries. As for getting involved in a laptop program for schoolchildren today, Negroponte's answer was simple: try eBay. "You can go buy a really good laptop for $300 or less today. You don't have to wait."