It’s starting to look like Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the MIT Media Lab, might just make his plan for a sub-$100 laptop work. Yes, that’s one hundred dollars. It has some very interesting innovations, and makes all sorts of interesting ideas possible.
The laptop is being developed by a newly-formed foundation, called One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) — have a look at the official FAQ. The idea is to make a really cheap but very usable laptop, which will be bought in quantities of at least a million, by governments, and distributed to schoolchildren. The idea is no less than, well, one laptop per child, anywhere in the world.
The group recently revealed a prototype. The design is very rugged, with a tough rubber case, and an AC adapter that doubles as a shoulder strap. The display is LCD-based, with two modes: normal colour, and a much brighter monochrome for outdoor use. Apparently it’s also ridiculously cheap, but still very high-resolution. The processor is 500MHz, and the fragile and expensive harddrive has been replaced with 1Gb of flash memory.
The machine has 4 USB ports, and Wi-Fi connectivity which will use a novel “mesh” networking model, where computers will also forward data to other machines, so that each computer extends the reach of the wireless network without needing more base stations. To further enhance portability, they come with a hand-crank which can be used in the absence of AC power. And, of course, it’ll be running a trimmed-down version of Linux.
This isn’t the first idea of its type, but it really seems to be taking off — apparently Brazil, China, Egypt, South Africa and Thailand have all said they will buy over a million units, and the governor of Massachusetts wants to buy them too. Making that many is of course a huge undertaking, but there a number of big name companies involved: AMD, Brightstar, Google, News Corporation, and Red Hat, for example. OLPC hopes to ship the first orders by the end of next year, or early 2007.
There are, of course, many projects to get computers into classrooms around the world (like, say, this one), and many have been very succesful. But each child having a laptop is a somewhat different proposition, with new opportunities. So I’ve just started thinking about what potential applications or ideas this sort of thing could open up.
The first thing that came to mind was textbooks. It would be great if the machines could come pre-installed with a selection of textbooks, or those books could come on cheap USB flash drives. This would make them updateable, and allow them to include internet links. It would also make textbooks affordable to children everywhere. There are already projects underway to write open source, free textbooks — a South African project, Free High School Science Texts, has the bulk of the text of a physics textbook, as well as much of a biology, maths and chemistry book. They’re working now with WikiBooks, a project using the Wikipedia engine to allow the creation of free books. So with a last push to get these through, it shouldn’t be hard to create a really useful package of textbooks that can be easily distributed — so avoiding one of the biggest problem with free textbooks, namely how you pay for the printing.
Being laptops, the children will of course take them home, which means all sorts of opportunities to use the availability of internet access in many more homes. As an example, the South African Post Office has some computers in some branches that allow people to use a community services portal that gives access to simple email, a job application (resumé) generation program, access to the paperwork required to get various government social security benefits, entrepreneurial advice, listings of university scholarships, and so forth. Often the people who could really benefit from this sort of information don’t get it, so this could really help social programs reach those that most need them.
But there are also all sorts of interesting applications one could add — think of cheap USB soundcard and small flash drive, in the shape of a phone handset. Throw Skype onto it, and you’ve provided every child with free phone calls to any other Skype-enabled computer (and each other), or very affordable calls to any other phone in the world — that is, cellphones without the hideous costs.
I’m quite excited by it all — and the textbook project, say, is quite approachable. Now I just need to find the relevant people to contact to get OLPC and the textbook consortium talking…
Exercise for the reader: Think of another killer app for universal laptop access. Then let’s see if anyone’s interested in making it happen.
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