Will This Laptop Change the World?

The One Laptop Per Child's XO may change the face of future systems.

Click here for our full special report on the XO Laptop, which includes additional information plus many photos of the XO and screenshots of the Sugar interface.

When you first see the XO, the thought that immediately jumps to mind is "kids toy." With its bright green color, built-in carrying handle, funny rabbit ears and rubber membrane keyboard, it looks like something that Fisher-Price might produce.

But when you pick it up, you realize how sturdy and well built the One Laptop Per Childs XO is. And when you turn it on, you discover that you are connecting wirelessly to the Internet and to other XO users who are creating a local network. You find lots of software designed for kids, but you also find some groundbreaking collaboration tools that let you work with others in ways that outshine some of the best corporate groupware available today.

Oh, and even though the bright sunshine is beating down on the laptop screen, youre having no trouble reading the display. In fact, not only is the bright sunlight not a problem, its actually a benefit because it is powering the XO through a small, low-cost solar cell. Come to think of it, the XO doesnt need much power to begin with because it runs at a fraction of the wattage considered "green" for other laptop systems.

This is the XO, a system born when Massachusetts Institute of Technology legend Nicholas Negroponte set out to build a $100 laptop that could be distributed to children and schools in developing countries. And while the finished XO product didnt make the $100 target price (its currently coming in at about $175), its priced right for mass distribution and is ready for deployment around the world.

I recently had the opportunity to spend some time at the offices of the One Laptop Per Child project, in Cambridge, Mass. I tested the final beta version of the XO, called B4, and spoke with OLPC President Walter Bender and Chief Technology Officer Mary Lou Jepsen. Based on earlier examinations of the OLPC laptop, I expected to be impressed simply by the systems economy, low-power capabilities and wireless mesh features. But what I saw exceeded these expectations.

Put simply, the XO is one of the most revolutionary computer systems that Ive seen in some time. During the entire time I was looking at the XO I was thinking, Why cant my new expensive laptop do this? The technologies that the OLPCs XO are introducing could go a long way toward changing the face of future systems, especially in the area of power consumption.

However, we shouldnt expect to see the OLPC start commercializing these technologies any time soon. While there is still a possibility that XOs may be sold to the public at a price that helps subsidize their deployment to the developing world, Jepsen said that when people from Silicon Valley ask her about commercializing the XOs technologies, she says, "Get in line—you have a billion kids in front of you."

But thats not to say that you wont be seeing the technologies the XO implements in a future corporate or personal laptop. The XO is changing the rules of the game, lighting a fire under manufacturers to start offering capabilities comparable to those of the XO (at low prices). Daring display

if the goal is to create a low-cost laptop with low power consumption, the place to start is the display—typically the most expensive and power-hungry part of a laptop.

When work began on the XO, Jepsen said, the first goal was to build a display that would be low in cost but appropriate for the environment in which it would be used. "I wanted to make a better display that would be more appropriate for the use conditions in the developing world," she said.

This meant that the OLPC needed to develop a display that would be relatively inexpensive but readable in outdoor conditions. The organization accomplished this through the use of diagonal rather than horizontal color stripes. The fact that each pixel is both black-and- white and color also helps. "The trade-off was black-and-white high resolution in sunlight and color in a room or at night," Jepsen said.

During my tests at the OLPC offices, I brought the XO out in strong sunlight (directly overhead). I had no problem reading the content on the XOs screen.

Yes, the content was in black- and-white instead of color (though indoors I found the color quality of the XO display to be good, even when watching video), but whats better? A black-and-white screen that you can read outside or a color screen thats invisible in the great outdoors? The XOs display was the best Ive used in direct sunlight, even when compared with smaller screens found on PDAs and smart phones.

Power play

While idling, the XO uses about 1 watt of power. In comparison, Energy Star-compliant laptops use no more than 14 watts when idling. "[The XO] is the greenest laptop ever made—and thats not just its color," Jepsen said.

Early demos of what was then called the $100 laptop included a crank for powering the system. Now, instead of focusing on one specific power system, the OLPC has built an ecosystem of alternative power sources. These include everything from small $10 solar panels to string-pull generators to bicycle systems to small windmills. While at the OLPC offices, I saw both a solar panel and the string-pull system in action.

When it comes to power for a laptop, the battery is also a big issue. Currently, the XO can use two different battery technologies: classic nickel-metal hydride or the newer lithium-iron phosphate. With safety a chief concern, the OLPC has done extensive heat testing on the XO using both battery types.

Jepsen said the OLPC also wanted to increase the life of the battery, so the organization designed it to last more than five years—or 2,000 to 3,000 recharges. Of course, the low power consumption of the system helps when it comes to how long a charge lasts. With the XO using on average 2 watts and the battery having a 20 watt hour span, the XO can easily go for 10 hours on a single charge. Jepsen also said that given the batterys low replacement cost (about $10), the OLPC is considering including a spare battery with every system.

Wireless mesh

Wireless can be another power problem for laptops, since a typical wireless system consumes about 10 watts. Jepsen said that the revolutionary wireless mesh technology in the XO uses just 0.8 watts of power.

The XOs wireless mesh is easily identified by the laptops rabbit-ear antennas. In the down position, the antennas protect the systems USB and audio ports; when up, the antennas boost range. The wireless mesh technology itself is based on the IEEEs 802.11f spec.

The wireless system turns every XO into a wireless router. So, in a village or small town where there is only one source for an Internet connection (say, a school), children in the village connect to one another and the Internet by connecting to other XOs over the mesh.

During the OLPCs tests, bandwidth of 2M bps per second was achieved even 10 hops from the source, Jepsen said. Range also appears to be very good, with an XO connecting when it was more than 2.3 kilometers from a wireless source (in what Jepsen admitted were ideal conditions—a flat plain).

Tough stuff

The XO was designed not just for children, but for children in environments that could be harsh on fragile systems. So the XO had to be developed from the ground up to be ultradurable to stand up over time. In test deployments in the developing world, the system has proved itself, often thanks to its many green-colored bumpers and handles, which provide a lot of cushioning for the system and its display.

The rubber membrane keyboard is resistant to water and dirty hands and is designed to be easily swapped to accommodate different languages and character sets.

But, with these systems going into some admittedly rough areas, the OLPC also had to build in some safeguards to prevent the systems from being stolen or sold on the black market.

All XOs are shipped in an inactive and nonfunctioning state. When they arrive at their final destination, a trusted person on-site activates the laptops using a special USB key. If a system is subsequently stolen or lost, it can be remotely deactivated and rendered nonfunctional.

The XO also uses a system called Bitfrost that implements many security best practices to limit the access rights of applications, files and users.

Under the covers

The software running on the xois just as interesting as its hardware.

For example, the XO runs theRed Hat Fedora Linux-based Sugar interface, which is commonly seen as an adaptation of Linux used mainly for simple applications and learning games. But the Sugar interface also includes some interesting capabilities for managing files, tasks and applications. Also, when combined with the wireless networking capabilities of the XO, the mesh view in Sugar is one of the best and most innovative collaboration environments that Ive ever seen.

The main home screen of Sugar is a fairly basic environment where a user can launch applications and see which ones are running. However, theres a good chance that, unlike a Windows or Macintosh desktop, users will spend very little time in the XO home screen. The Journal application is a good candidate for becoming the main interface for file and application management. The Journal automatically tracks and tags all activities, files and applications that a Sugar user has accessed, based on time. Its rich and customizable tagging system makes it possible to search and manage content in multiple ways.

However, easily one of the most powerful features in Sugar is the mesh view. Within this view—which can be accessed from a dedicated button on the XO keyboard or from a button in nearly every application in Sugar—users can see other users connected on the mesh network and what they are working on. Users also can connect to, and chat or share work with, one another. For example, a teacher could share a reading assignment simply by dropping an e-book onto the mesh.

The mesh can be sorted in multiple ways, including by task, project, groups and buddies, or even geographically. Looking at the mesh, I could easily see how an interface like it could be a huge asset in any corporate collaboration or project management tool.

Collaboration and sharing also is a big factor in other Sugar applications. Using the XOs built-in camera and microphone, users can easily jump into video or audio chats with other users. By default, all media in Sugar is saved in the open Ogg Vorbis format, although users will be able to import codecs if they choose. The included players will support most common formats. The bundled applications in Sugar include many of the usual suspects: a Firefox-based Web browser; a simple writing application; an RSS reader; an e-book reader; a drawing tool; and, of course, lots of learning games.

However, unlike systems that tend to stick to either dumbed-down interfaces or advanced tools, Sugar applications run the gamut. "One of the core ideas behind what were trying to do with Sugar and the laptop is the idea of low floor, no ceiling," the OLPCs Bender said.

This idea extends to the development tools bundled with Sugar—from the simple Scratch environment all the way to Python—and to the music creation tools, including the simple but fun TamTam music box and cSounds, an advanced sound programming language used in Hollywood.

Power of education

While I was at the OLPC offices, i saw a number of developers working on new and interesting applications and games for Sugar. These included an advanced calculator that handled functions such as word-based calculations and a customizable matching game useful for classroom quizzes.

One of the cooler applications took the microphone from the XO and used it as an analog data port, essentially turning the XO into an oscilloscope. Given the places it will be deployed, this could turn out to be an extremely valuable customization of the XO.

Like the OLPC project and the XO in general, much of the effort around Sugar is focused on giving children and teachers the tools to grow and customize applications themselves. In many ways, this is the core power of computing: Yes, its great to use interesting programs that others supply, but real learning and growth come from building new applications and tools.

"Were just going to be providing this core, and then the kids and the teachers can be loading as many of these other packages as they want," Bender said. "Part of the idea is that theyll be making things, but the core of reading, writing and arithmetic is all there."