Software on low-cost laptop for schoolkids could be more revolutionary than its economics
December 28, 2006
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – 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 PCs.
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.
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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 tools.”
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 sessions.
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 community.
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 children.”
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.
The XO computer, developed by the One Laptop Per Child project, is slated to ship to schoolchildren in developing countries this year. Hardware specifications are not final.
A look at the current specs:
Size: Comparable to a big textbook, at roughly 8 inches by 9 inches by 2.5 inches and approximately 4 pounds. The case closes tightly to guard against dust and water and the keyboard is under a sealed rubber membrane.
Central processing unit: An Advanced Micro Devices Inc. Geode GX, a low-power chip with a clock speed of 366 megahertz.
Memory: 128 megabytes of system memory and 512 megabytes of flash-based data storage. Three USB 2.0 ports allow for additional storage or other peripherals to be plugged in.
Display: A rotating, 7.5-inch liquid-crystal display that can toggle between standard color and a reflective monochrome. Resolution is 1200 pixels by 900 pixels and 200 dots per inch.
Power: Has an AC adapter and a rechargeable battery as well as mechanical power via a hand-pull system like a lawn mower starter. Project designers expect to deliver about 10 minutes of power for every one minute of yanking.