TECH TALK: Computing for the Next Billion: OLPC

Nicholas Negropontes One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project has attracted the greatest attention with its ambitious goals of creating a $100 laptop and getting it out to hundreds of millions of school kids everywhere. Ethan Zuckerman wrote on the project recently:

[The] goal is to produce a laptop designed for use by children – students in grades K-12. And that requires radically different design decisions that what one would make in simply creating a low-cost laptop The current prototype is little, orange, and very, very cute. It has a molded plastic handle and looks remarkably like a Speak and Spell.

Its got bunny years – antennas 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 doesnt require white fluorescent backlight. (Many of the questions I need to answer for the IEEE article concern the screen, as its 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.

As promised, the laptop can be folded into an ebook, with the screen on top, used as a handheld game player, or have the screen turned around so the machine can be used as a video player.

Really taking advantage of the potential of the laptop requires changing the entire ecosystem of education in the developing world, a process thats going to require more time than the year or two after laptops are distributed and the efforts of people other than very bright MIT professors. The scale and scope of this project means that a large portion of the questions I most want to ask – how will this be used in the classroom? will teachers accept it? how will kids cope if machines break or get stolen? what happens when people use machines to do decidedly antisocial things? or creative and entrepreneurial things? – are really hard to answer until the machine is out in the field. I wonder out loud if it would make sense to do a small pilot before the project goes further – Jim points out that the current plan to distribute five million laptops in five nations next year is a pilot – when youre talking about building and distributing more than two billion devices, a few million is just a toe dipped into the water.

Tomorrow: OLPC (continued)

TECH TALK Computing for the Next Billion+T

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.