Low-Cost Linux Laptop Could Transform Learning
Forget windows, folders and boxes that pop up with text. When students in Thailand,
Libya and other developing countries get their $150 computers from the One Laptop
Per Child project in 2007, their experience will be unlike anything on standard
For most of these children the XO machine, as it's called, likely will be the
first computer they've ever used. Because the students have no expectations
for what PCs should be like, the laptop's creators started from scratch in designing
a user interface they figured would be intuitive for children.
The result is as unusual as -- but possibly even riskier than -- other much-debated
aspects of the machine, such as its economics and distinctive hand-pulled mechanism
for charging its battery. (XO has been known as the $100 laptop because of the
ultra-low cost its creators eventually hope to achieve through mass production.)
For example, students who turn on the small green-and-white computers will
be greeted by a basic home screen with a stick-figure icon at the center, surrounded
by a white ring. The entire desktop has a black frame with more icons.
This runic setup signifies the student at the middle. The ring contains programs
the student is running, which can be launched by clicking the appropriate icon
in the black frame.
When the student opts to view the entire "neighborhood" -- the XO's
preferred term instead of "desktop" -- other stick figures in different
colors might appear on the screen. Those indicate schoolmates who are nearby,
as detected by the computers' built-in wireless networking capability.
Moving the PC's cursor over the classmates' icons will pull up their names
or photos. With further clicks the students can chat with each other or collaborate
on things -- an art project, say, or a music program on the computer, which
has built-in speakers.
The design partly reflects a clever attempt to get the most from the machine's
limited horsepower. To keep costs and power demands low, XO uses a slim version
of the Linux operating system, a 366-megahertz processor from Advanced Micro
Devices Inc. and no hard disk drive. Instead it has 512 megabytes of flash memory,
plus USB 2.0 ports where more storage could be attached.
But the main design motive was the project's goal of stimulating education
better than previous computer endeavors have. Nicholas Negroponte, who launched
the project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab two years
ago before spinning One Laptop into a separate nonprofit, said he deliberately
wanted to avoid giving children computers they might someday use in an office.
"In fact, one of the saddest but most common conditions in elementary
school computer labs (when they exist in the developing world), is the children
are being trained to use Word, Excel and PowerPoint," Negroponte wrote
in an e-mail interview. "I consider that criminal, because children should
be making things, communicating, exploring, sharing, not running office automation
To that end, folders are not the organizing metaphor on these machines, unlike
most computers since Apple Computer Inc. launched the first Mac in 1984. The
knock on folders is that they force users to remember where they stored their
information rather than what they used it for.
Instead, the XO machines are organized around a "journal," an automatically
generated log of everything the user has done on the laptop. Students can review
their journals to see their work and retrieve files created or altered in those
Despite these school-focused frameworks, its creators bristle at any suggestion
XO is a mere toy. A wide range of programs can run on it, including a Web browser,
a word processor and an RSS reader -- the software that delivers blog updates
to information junkies.
The computer also has features anyone would love, notably a built-in camera
and a color display that converts to monochrome so it's easier to see in sunlight.
"I have to laugh when people refer to XO as a weak or crippled machine
and how kids should get a 'real' one," Negroponte wrote. "Trust me,
I will give up my real one very soon and use only XO. It will be far better,
in many new and important ways."
Although the end result is new, the lead software integrator, Chris Blizzard
of Red Hat Inc., said 90 percent of the underlying programming code was cobbled
together from technologies that long existed in the open-source programming
In keeping with that open nature, details and simulations of the user interface,
nicknamed Sugar, have been available online, to mixed reviews.
Some bloggers have said that even as Sugar avoids complexities inherent in
the familiar operating systems from Microsoft Corp. or Apple, it just creates
a different set of complexities to be mastered.
How hard that is should be one key measure of the project's success. One Laptop
plans to send a specialist to each school who will stay for a month helping
teachers and students get started. But Negroponte believes that kids ultimately
will learn the system by exploring it and then teaching each other.
Still, no one appears to doubt the technical savvy Sugar represents.
Wayan Vota, who launched the OLPCNews.com blog to monitor the project's development
because he is skeptical it can achieve its aims, called Sugar "amazing
-- a beautiful redesign."
"It doesn't feel like Linux. It doesn't feel like Windows. It doesn't
feel like Apple," said Vota, who is director of Geekcorps, an organization
that facilitates technology volunteers in developing countries. He emphasized
that his opinions were his own and not on behalf of Geekcorps.
"I'm just impressed they built a new (user interface) that is different
and hopefully better than anything we have today," he said. But he added:
"Granted, I'm not a child. I don't know if it's going to be intuitive to
Indeed, the XO machines are still being tweaked, and Sugar isn't expected to
be tested by any kids until February. By July or so, several million are expected
to reach Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Nigeria, Libya, Pakistan, Thailand and
the Palestinian territory. Negroponte said three more African countries might
sign on in the next two weeks. The Inter-American Development Bank is trying
to get the laptops to multiple Central American countries.
The machines are being made by Quanta Computer Inc., and countries will get
versions specific to their own languages. Governments or donors will buy the
laptops for children to own, along with associated server equipment for their
schools. The project itself has gotten at least $29 million in funding from
companies including Google Inc., News Corp. and Red Hat.
But that's not to say everything has fallen into place for One Laptop.
India's government originally expressed interest but backed out. Even though
Brazil plans to take part, it is hedging its bets by evaluating $400 "Classmate
PCs" from Intel Corp. Brazil's government is a big fan of open-source software
as a cost-saver, but at least in initial tests, officials have said those Classmate
PCs just might run Windows.