Saturday, October 20, 2007

Help a Child (and Help Yourself to a Laptop)

In case you haven't heard of Nicholas Negroponte's initiative "One Laptop Per Child" (also dubbed "the $100 laptop project"), the idea is to build a cheap laptop and equip children in 3rd world nations with an advanced education platform.

The project will start shipping actual laptops (codename XOPC) in December. The price of each unit will actually be $200, but even with a 100% budgetary miss, this is a wonderful machine:
  1. It's rugged, can survive high temperatures and even be dropped repeatability (although, it's not recommended).
  2. It has a camera and microphone buit in.
  3. It's unique battery can run for 6 hours, if you play sound and video. Or 20 if you just read documents. It can be charged and discharged 2000 times (compared to 500 on a normal laptop battery).
  4. Since the laptop will be operated in areas that have little or no electricity, it has a hand crank (like old cars). A minute of cranking will get you 10 minutes of battery power.
  5. Not only does the laptop support regular wireless network, but it also supports mesh network. This means you can turn on your computer and automatically see and connect to anyone who has a similar laptop. This would allow sharing documents, video conferencing (think of a teacher finally able to talk to illiterate parents face-to-face) and is extremely well suited for class (or village environment). Furthermore, if even one computer in the mesh connects to the internet, the rest can share that connection, The more laptops connected, the better the bandwidth (see a demo here).
  6. The operating system is a minimal, customized Linux. It's very resilient and made to run and support unique education applications and games, in many non-common languages. All software is open source and developed by volunteers.
  7. Finally, my favorite feature: one key on the keyboard reveals the source of every application on the machine. The user can then change the software and test the results. If he makes a mess of things, the machine can easily restore the original.
    This feature will go a long way towards teaching kids to program, and get poor countries to start using their best resource: brains.
All this, and much more (full spec here) for $200! Granted, this is quite a slow machine and quite useless for common office or multimedia uses in the northern hemisphere (although I wish someone would copy the battery technology to regular laptops). More than that, to make it appeal to kids, it was designed like a toy: green box with 2 horns (actually the wireless antennae). As David Pogue put it, it looks like Shrek's laptop.

But remember who's the target crowd for this laptop: kids in poor countries. If they like it and use it, they can start joining the rest of the world.

So far, according to Pogue, 3 factors are preventing this project from turning into a rolling success:
  1. Education ministers in poor countries - if people have these computers, they might actually have to start working. Not to mention the fact that access to the internet might give people bizarre ideas like "peace", "freedom", "knowledge", "travel" etc.
  2. Big computer companies - Microsoft, Dell, Sun etc. Some of these guys have made nothing but bad comments about the project so far. Of course, giving such laptops with operating systems on them, "steals" a potential crowd of 3 billion people and educates them to things like "freeware" and "open source" (almost as worse as "freedom"...)
  3. Critics - many humanitarians claim that there are bigger problems in those regions: war, famine, diseases, lack of water... How can a laptop solve those? Why not just give the money to those governments? Negroponte replies that usually results start with education. I would add that pouring money into those (mostly corrupt) governments, is akin to pouring money into the ocean.
This laptop will not be sold in the US. But, for a limited time in November, you can join the "Give 1 Get 1" offering: for $399, you'll donate a laptop to a child in a developing country and get one yourself (along with a tax deduction receipt for those in the US). You can donate as many laptops as you feel like. I just registered to donate one. I wonder if my nephews would appreciate this unbreakable laptop...

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