BOSTON—The $100 laptop is coming together, its founder says, but without the famous crank.
Nicholas Negroponte, chairman of One Laptop Per Child, said in a keynote at LinuxWorld here that OLPC is preparing to deliver its first 5 million to 10 million machines late this year or early in 2007. The machines will come with 7-inch screens and a 500MHz processor from Advanced Micro Devices, will use flash memory in lieu of a hard drive, and will run a Linux operating system. The hand crank, which was criticized by Bill Gates, Microsofts chairman, will be moved to the machines power supply brick, however.
Despite the groundswell of interest and some criticism it has created, the $100 laptop, Negroponte said, is primarily an educational tool designed to be owned and maintained by schoolchildren. Its job, in part, is to educate by granting students access to the Internet and its vast store of information—Negroponte joked that many students first word in English is “Google”—as well as by allowing them to write computer programs. But it is likely to teach the computer industry, famous for its grandiose projects that inevitably face setbacks, something of a lesson as well: Think small.
“I have come to a conclusion that every new release of software is distinctly worse than the other. Why? Its because the fat lady cant sing. Theres a natural tendency to add stuff,” Negroponte said. “Suddenly it [becomes] like a very fat person—uses most of their energy to move the fat. Weve gotten to the point where we have to completely rethink.”
The $100 laptop, on the other hand, takes away a lot of things. It does away with markups for sales and marketing, a large display and Windows XP—three of the costliest components of building and selling a machine. But it still gets the job done, Negroponte said, by offering a small but readable screen, which is designed to be viewable both indoors and out, as well as the ability to connect to the Internet and to serve as a router for other computers.
As its difficult to build more schools and add more teachers quickly, giving children laptops would allow them greater freedom to learn, he argued, citing multiple examples, including Maines one-laptop-per-child program.
The program, which began in 2002, has cut down on discipline problems and truancy, increased attendance of parent-teacher meetings, and generally got students more engaged, Negroponte said.
“You have to leverage the children. Children have to be bigger part of their education,” he said. “The kids have to own them. Ownership is very important.”
The $100 laptop has a lot of parallels with the mainstream computer industry. Coincidentally, its 7-inch screen is the same size as the first wave of ultramobile PCs, driven by Microsoft and Intel.
“Its the same as the Origami,” Negroponte said. “I dont know exactly what Bill was talking about.”
Gates criticized the machine during a speech in Washington, D.C., by saying, “The last thing you want to do for a shared-use computer is have it be something without a disk … and with a tiny little screen,” Reuters reported on March 15.
The $100 laptops other components come from brand-name companies as well. They will include a 500MHz AMD processor—likely one of the companys Geode chips—along with 128MB of RAM; 512MB of flash memory, which serves as local storage; three or four Universal Serial Bus ports; and Wi-Fi mesh networking. The mesh capability, which will remain on when the computer is powered down, will foster impromptu networks and allow many machines to share one Internet connection.
Choosing the display and stripping away sales and marketing took work, but a major part of the effort has gone into design. Powering the machine, for one thing, was a major concern as well.
“Were going to be below 2 watts [of total power consumption]. Thats very important because 35 percent of world doesnt have electricity,” Negroponte said. “Power is such a big deal that youre going to hear every company boasting about power” in the near future. “That is the currency of tomorrow.”
Thus OLPC chose low-power components, including display and processor, and made the machine capable of being self-powered.
The company dropped the hand crank mechanism that was present in some of its prototypes, including a bright-green machine it showed on Nov. 28, 2005, at the United Nations World Summit on the Information Society. The crank could stress the notebooks chassis, Negroponte said. So OLPC added it to the power supply, instead. The power supply could use a crank or a mechanism such as a foot pedal, he said.
The dual-mode screen will be able to be read easily in bright sunlight and work indoors just as easily, he said, offering a 1,110-by-830-pixel resolution in black and white in outdoor mode and 640 by 480 pixels in color indoors.
Meanwhile, using a relatively lightweight version of Linux—Negroponte did not specify what type, but the project is being supported by Red Hat Software—will allow for instant-on.
“We are also talking to Microsoft. Theyre going to make a Windows CE version” for the machine, Negroponte said. “Were going to help them make a Win CE version, so geez, why criticize me?”
While AMD will supply the processor, Marvell will likely provide wireless chips to the laptops. Quanta Computer, one of the worlds top computer manufacturers, will build the machine.
Negroponte showed pictures of two concept machines, both of which are so-called convertibles. Thus, the machines can open like clamshells, but their screens can rotate 180 degrees and fold down to create a writing surfaces.
A yellow-colored one, dubbed “Seed A,” includes a handle for carrying it. A more traditional-looking concept, which is blue, is simply called “book.”
The first $100 laptops will look different, however, Negroponte said, adding no other details.
They will roll out in seven countries—Argentina, Brazil, China, Egypt and the Middle East, India, Nigeria, and Thailand—in addition to Massachusetts, Negroponte joked, where its received an endorsement from Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
The $100 laptops initial price will actually start at $135 in 2007. The price will move downward over time, however, reaching $100 in 2008, and it will hit $50 by 2010, Negroponte said.