The Null Device

One Laptop Per Child

Details have emerged of the One Laptop Per Child machine; that's the cute little green orange laptop designed to be given to children in the developing world, costing US$100 per unit. It has some rather nifty technological and design innovations, specifically tailored for its purpose:
It's got bunny ears - antennae for the 802.11s wireless radios, which are designed to self-assemble meshes with other laptops. The ears fold down to cover the USB, power and mic ports, an excellent design for the sorts of dusty environments I can imagine the device used in. The screen in the current prototype is a conventional LCD screen - the screen in the production devices will be roughly the same size, probably slightly larger than the 7.5" screen in the prototype, but will be based around a technique that doesn't require white fluorescent backlight. (Many of the questions I need to answer for the IEEE article concern the screen, as it's one of the most expensive and power-hungry components of the machine.) The keyboard is about 60% of the size of a conventional keyboard and has calculator-style keys.
The one feature missing from the prototype I saw - the crank. It's been clear - even before Kofi Annan broke the crank off an early laptop prototype - that a power-generating crank attached to the machine, like cranks are incorporated into FreePlay radios, might not work. Jim, who has designed the motherboard of the machine and has been focused on power consumption, helped me understand why.
The machine still needs to be miserly with power to be usable as a human-charged device. And this is where the team have worked some serious magic. When the machine is not in active use, it can act as a mesh node, helping maintain a connectivity cloud over a village or school while drawing only 0.5 watts - the wireless subsystem (a Marvell chip with 100kb of RAM) operates independently of the main processor and can forward packets with the CPU shut down. The machine draws a similar amount of power in ebook mode, using a black and white display. The display IC has a substantial frame buffer - this means it can store a black and white image and display it without any assistance from the CPU, again allowing the CPU to shut down and save power.
For those wanting one as a toy/a second laptop/a travelling computer, you can't buy one. Though that's probably just as well, as you'd probably find it somewhat disappointing to actually use, unless you're a child. For one, there's the tiny keyboard, the low memory capacity and CPU power, and the rather unbusinesslike orange colour that would get one laughed out of deathmatch parties.

The OLPC is designed to be subversively hackable. The hardware is designed for modifiability (whilst the circuit board will come lightly populated, there are spaces where memory, add-ons and extra ports can be added, and one of the design considerations is wide pitch, to make it easier to repair, modify or cannibalise dead machines to make working ones). Also, the built-in software, which runs on Linux, ships with full development tools and extensively uses the ideas of open-source and wiki content:

For expert users who want to develop on the system, the laptop will ship with gcc, gtk, and the other stuff you need to build and distribute software. In addition, the software will include three development environments: Python, Javascript and Logowiki.
Logowiki, from what I've seen of it, is amazingly cool. It starts from a collection of wiki pages, like Wikipedia, and treats pages as computational objects. This means that the Wikipedia page on Logo would run Logo, letting you try out functions and move the turtle around. This opens up some amazing possibilities - wiki pages about physics that include programmable models that help you understand acceleration or momentum, for instance. And, indeed, you can come onto logowiki and play with little programs that build spirals or calculate Pi.
The wiki concept isn't just a neat hack; it's also a meta-level end-run of sorts around any censorious or repressive tendencies the governments which buy and populate these machines may have:
Wikis are important to the architecture of the software for another reason - they're part of the subversive strategy behind the machine. The OLPC team won't have control over what content is loaded onto the laptop in different countries - that's the decision of individual education ministries. But by using wikis as a content management system - rather than, say, a PDF viewer - the team manages to sneak in the idea of user-generated content into schools. Perhaps most textbook pages will be protected in a wiki structure - wiki features like discussion pages will still exist, opening new possibilities for how kids interact with schoolbooks.
So if the Taliban or Kim Jong Il want to buy a few containers of machines and cripple them to make them incapable of being used in blasphemous or ideologically impure ways, they're better off licensing Microsoft's alternative system, which takes a more managed approach to freedom and creative play. Perhaps the DRM systems in MS's solution (which, I'm sure, will be nicely prettified to teach children how to be well-behaved citizens of the global marketplace) can also be used to prevent play from veering off in blasphemous or seditious directions.

There are 2 comments on "One Laptop Per Child":

Posted by: Andrew Thu Jun 8 23:22:07 2006

If such a device was released to the general public it would sell very well. I'd love a cheap laptop I could use on the train without fear of being mugged for it. All I want to do in 90% of cases is type some notes and read some text.

Posted by: acb Thu Jun 8 23:35:20 2006

If it'd sell well, chances are you could be mugged for it. After all, thieves steal mobile phones a lot.

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