Friday, December 09, 2005
One-laptop-per-child by next year?
Negroponte unveils $100 laptop's 'playful' design
By Declan McCullagh
Published: Thursday 17 November 2005
A hand-cranked laptop that will cost roughly $100 is expected to be in the hands of schoolchildren in poorer countries by late 2006.
MIT Media Lab chairman Nicholas Negroponte said at a UN internet summit in Tunis, Tunisia, that his not-for-profit organisation was negotiating with manufacturers and would have an initial order placed by February or March. Brazil and Thailand are among the six governments that have showed the strongest interest, Negroponte said.
The final design incorporates a low-power display designed by project engineer Mary Lou Jepsen that's designed to run for up to 40 minutes in black-and-white mode with one minute of cranking.
The case colour is a combination of lime green and yellow. Negroponte, who runs the One Laptop Per Child not-for-profit group that's organising the effort, said: "It was the hardest decision. We wanted to use colour because it's a message of playfulness."
UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, who showed up at the beginning of the event, said: "This is truly a moving experience. It's also a moving expression of global solidarity and corporate citizenship."
In principle, the project seems simple: design a laptop with built-in wireless and minimal power consumption, find manufacturers willing to build it for about $100, convince governments to buy it in quantities of at least one million as an initial order, and give it to schoolchildren to keep as their own property. (The goal is tens of millions produced and distributed within two years.)
But negotiating with governments has proved to be strenuous - Negroponte called it "very hard" - and the price quotes to build the machine remain closer to $110 than $100. He said: "We're not even going to promise they're $100. They may be $115. What we're promising is that the price will float down."
Another worry is what happens to the laptops after they're handed gratis to students with families that are struggling to survive. The average Nigerian, for instance, makes $1,000 per year - so a family would have a strong incentive to sell the laptop because they need the money.
Negroponte said: "One of the things you want to do is make sure there's no secondary market." He said one solution would be to make sure "the machine will be disabled if it doesn't log in to the network for a few days".
The proposed design of the machines calls for a 500MHz processor, 1GB of memory and a unique dual-mode display that can be used in full-colour mode, or in a black-and-white sunlight-readable mode. It's not clear yet how much cranking will be needed for the higher-power colour mode.
It's expected to run an open-source operating system, probably Linux, Negroponte said, rather than a closed-source product from Apple or Microsoft. Companies including AMD, Google, News Corp and Red Hat have donated to the project.
Declan McCullagh writes for CNET News.com
Negroponte: Laptop for Every Kid
By Kevin Poulsen
12:58 PM Nov. 17, 2005 PT
TUNIS, Tunisia -- If tech luminary Nicholas Negroponte has his way, the pale light from rugged, hand-cranked $100 laptops will illuminate homes in villages and townships throughout the developing world, and give every child on the planet a computer of their own by 2010.
The MIT Media Lab and Wired magazine founder stood shoulder to shoulder with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to unveil the first working prototype of the "$100 laptop" -- currently more like $110 -- at the U.N. World Summit on the Information Society here Wednesday. The Linux-based machine instantly became the hit of the show, and Thursday saw diplomats and dignitaries, reporters and TV cameras perpetually crowded around the booth of One Laptop Per Child -- Negroponte's nonprofit -- craning for a glimpse of the toy-like tote.
With its cheery green coloring and Tonka-tough shell, the laptop certainly looks cool. It boasts a 7-inch screen that swivels like a tablet PC, and an electricity-generating crank that provides 40 minutes of power from a minute of grinding. Built-in Wi-Fi with mesh networking support, combined with a microphone, speaker and headset jack, even means the box can serve as a node in an ersatz VOIP phone system.
Under the hood, it's powered by a modest 500-MHz AMD processor, and uses a gig of flash memory for storage. But the key to building it cheaply enough to educate the world's children is an innovative, low-power LCD screen technology invented by Negroponte's CTO, Mary Lou Jepsen. "The manufacturers are the toughest audience, and they stopped laughing in September," says Jepsen. The machine is expected to start mass production late next year, and the governments of Thailand and Brazil have already said they're serious about placing $1 million orders for their school kids. Others are close to lining up.
Wired News broke through a cloud of admirers to chat with Negroponte about the future of the little green box that's captured the imagination of normally staid world leaders.
WN: Did you expect this kind of reaction?
Negroponte: I expected this reaction, actually. Partly because this kind of meeting is normally not that interesting. And I don't mean that quite as pejoratively as it sounds. You've got a lot of public figures making short statements, you've got a lot of booths which are NGOs, which are passing out pamphlets. I went to the Geneva one (in 2003), and being a star here is not something you should take too seriously.
WN: What do you think the appeal of this idea is?
Negroponte: The appeal is obviously the cost, and the people realize that you can do one laptop per child. When it sinks in, they realize that you would not propose one pencil per classroom. It really does fall into a different class.
Clearly (though) in some countries even $100 spread over five years is too expensive. So in those countries we have to find other means to pay for it than the normal education budget. But at least half of the developing world -- certainly half the population, probably half the countries -- could afford the $20 per year.
WN: How did you come to do this project in the first place?
Negroponte: We've been working now with computers and education for 30 years, computers in developing countries for 20 years, and trying to make low-cost machines for 10 years. This is not a sudden turn down the road. What put us over the edge was that it was possible to do it. A combination of things that had been invented -- display technology like electronic ink, mesh networks for communications, just a number of things that happened in the context of the Media Lab -- (indicated) that the time was right.
Also telecommunications in developing countries is moving apace and things are happening -- so it doesn't really need us anymore, that's going to happen. So focusing on the device and one laptop per child was kind of the natural thing to do.
WN: Why the emphasis on open source? Why not use a donated version of Windows or OS X?
Negroponte: Because you want the kids to develop software.... It's hard to propose a $100 laptop for a world community of kids and then not say in the same breath that you're going to depend on the community to make software for it.
So the open source and the $100 laptop are sort of flip sides of the same coin, and you want the kids to contribute to it....
WN: So you're shipping this with development tools installed?
Negroponte: Yes. Absolutely.
WN: We're talking about C compilers and Make and the whole programming environment?
WN: One could argue that it's better to give them something that has more mainstream commercial appeal.
Negroponte: Now be careful there. Fifty percent of the servers on this planet are using either Linux or some kind of Unix derivative.... So 20 percent of the world's servers are already using what I would call perfectly mainstream software. And there are open-source approaches to it that are working just fine. It's not mainstream on the desktop, I'll admit, but we'll make it mainstream on the desktop. We'll push that over the edge.
WN: Is the goal literally to make computers available to every child that wants one in the world?
Negroponte: It's every child in the world whether they want one or not. They may not know they want one.
WN: Do you have any thoughts on what the long-term impact of giving all these kids a programming environment and an open-source ethic might be?
Negroponte: Those are two different questions. Giving the kids a programming environment of any sort, whether it's a tool like Squeak or Scratch or Logo to write programs in a childish way -- and I mean that in the most generous sense of the word, that is, playing with and building things -- is one of the best ways to learn. Particularly to learn about thinking and algorithms and problem solving and so forth.
And providing the tools for some people -- it's going to be a very limited subset (who will use them) -- to develop software that will be redistributed and versioned and so forth out into the world is also important. It's part of the whole open-source movement.
WN: You're going to be unleashing a whole new generation of open-source programmers, who otherwise would never, possibly, have gotten their hands on a computer.
Negroponte: I hope so. I hope we unleash half a billion of them.
WN: What, if anything, has been challenging about bringing this idea to national leaders?
Negroponte: Bringing the idea to national leaders has been easy, partly because I know some of them, or they know me.... It's almost easier for me to get in the door than Michael Dell or Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, even though they're more famous, richer or more important. It's easier for me to get in because I'm not selling something.
Once I'm in the door, the idea takes seconds for people to get.... People get it quickly, they sleep on it, very often they wake up the next morning saying, "Oh my god, this is a really big change." The whole idea of harnessing the resources of children themselves to participate in education is a pretty big one. A lot of people don't think about it....
It's a short story. It's also a pretty good story, and there aren't too many good stories in the world right now. There's no angle to it that's bad.... And with the possible exception of the circumstance in which (the government) is so poor that the $100 can't be reached, it really isn't a balancing act here. Why would you not do this?
WN: Here's a potential downside: How long is it going to be before somebody writes a computer virus that takes advantage of this mesh network to start spreading?
Negroponte: You've got to be careful here. That's a little like saying you ought to not teach people how to read and write because they could write messages to each other about how to build a bomb. Anything you tell me that has to do with education, I can tell you how it's not a good idea because they could read a book on how to make a bomb or something.... I'm more worried about the reverse.
I (do) want to make sure we are virus-proof. That you can reboot, so you don't get infected in a way that's really cataclysmic.
WN: Now that you've unveiled your prototype, what are the next steps? What do you face in the coming months?
Negroponte: The next steps are big. We face two things rights now. They're happening right as we speak. One is we have five ODMs looking at this, to build it. They're looking at that machine, those specs, and they have to -- in the next seven days -- come up with real bids. Let's assume we pick one, then you go through a very complex stage of building prototypes. It just doesn't just go from zero to 1 million units overnight. It's a very complex process.
The second thing we're doing is we're talking to a more limited number of brand-name manufacturers -- you can guess them all, make a list and you'd be 100 percent right -- who we are approaching with the idea that they make a commercial version of it. For themselves. We're not trying to do anything commercial, but if they do, and they -- whether the right word is license it, or partner with us ... then we get three benefits from that.
One is an engineering partnership, obviously with somebody who's been doing this. Second of all, wider distribution -- so this would be not just kids in school, but it could be commercial and retail channels.
And the third thing you get, within the limits of international law, you could have cross-subsidy. You could have commercial machines sold for $225. Let me pretend $25 of that went to One Laptop Per Child, and that lowers the cost of the laptop from $100 down to $75.... There are anti-dumping laws that make that not as simple as I just said.
WN: Is it too early for me to preorder one?
Negroponte: You have nobody to order it from. I cannot tell you -- I even get checks in the mail from people who are ordering them. The fact that it's not going to be on the commercial market is something that really bothers people, because when they see it, a lot of people who see it say ... "I want to be able to buy one." Well, the truth is, if you could buy one it wouldn't be $100, it would be $225. And you'd still buy it.
The $100 laptop is a design for an inexpensive laptop computer being developed by the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) organization to provide every child in the world access to knowledge and modern forms of education. OLPC is a Delaware-based, non-profit organization created by faculty members of the MIT Media Lab to design, manufacture, and distribute the laptops. OLPC was announced by Lab chairman and co-founder Nicholas Negroponte at the January 2005 World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland. The laptops will be sold to governments and issued to children by schools on a basis of one laptop per child. They will be rugged, Linux-based, and so energy efficient that hand-cranking alone will generate sufficient power for operation. Ad-hoc wireless mesh networking may be used to allow many machines Internet access from one connection. The pricing goal is to start at $100 and then steadily decrease. The laptop is sometimes called the Green Machine.
Mary Lou Jepsen, Alan Kay and Nicholas Negroponte unveil the $100 laptop
Mary Lou Jepsen, Alan Kay and Nicholas Negroponte unveil the $100 laptop
OLPC is based on "constructivist" theories of learning pioneered by Seymour Papert and later Alan Kay, and the principles expressed in Nicholas Negroponte's book Being Digital (ISBN 0679439196). The founding corporate members are Google, News Corp, AMD, Red Hat, and Brightstar, each of whom donated 2 million dollars to the project. All three individuals and five companies are active participants in OLPC. In many respects it is the descendant of the 1997 eMate (based on the Apple Newton), also aimed at the education market.
Negroponte showed a working prototype [ see above photo ] of the laptop on November 16, 2005 at the second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunis. However, the device shown was a rough prototype, as there is still work on the development of the device for both performance and price. Negroponte estimated that the screen alone required three more months of development. The laptops are scheduled to be be available by the end of 2006 or early 2007.
IEEE 802.11b support will be provided using an Wi Fi "Extended Range" chipset. Jepson has said the wireless chipset will be run at a low bitrate, 2Mbps maximum rather than the usual higher speed 5.5Mbs or 11Mbps to minimize power consumption.
Whenever the laptop is powered on it will participate in a mobile ad-hoc network with each node operating in a peer-to-peer fashion with other laptops it can hear and forwarding packets across the cloud. If a computer in the cloud has access to the Internet (either directly or indirectly) then all computers in the cloud will be able to acess the net. The data rate across this network will not be high but similar networks like the store and forward Motoman project have supported email services to 1000 schoolchildren in Cambodia, according the Negroponte. The data rate should be sufficient for asynchronous network applications such as email to communicate outside the cloud rather than interactive uses, like web browsing, or high bandwidth applications, such as video streaming. Interactive network communication should be possible inside the cloud.
The conventional IEEE 802.11 system only handles traffic within a local "cloud" of wireless devices in a manner similar to an Ethernet network. Each node transmits and receives its own data but does not route packets between two nodes that cannot communicate directly. Which additional protocols the OLPC laptop will use to form a wireless mesh network is not known.
It is unclear if the laptop will join the wireless mesh network if it is in eBook mode.
$100 laptop - FAQs
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Nicholas Negroponte, founding chairman of MIT's Media Laboratory, answers questions on the initiative.
What is the $100 Laptop, really?
The proposed $100 machine will be a Linux-based, full-color, full-screen laptop that will use innovative power (including wind-up) and will be able to do most everything except store huge amounts of data. This rugged laptop will be WiFi-enabled and have USB ports galore. Its current specifications are: 500MHz, 1GB, 1 Megapixel.
Why do children in developing nations need laptops?
Laptops are both a window and a tool: a window into the world and a tool with which to think. They are a wonderful way for all children to "learn learning" through independent interaction and exploration.
Why not a desktop computer, or—even better—a recycled desktop machine?
Desktops are cheaper, but mobility is important, especially with regard to taking the computer home at night. Kids in the developing world need the newest technology, especially really rugged hardware and innovative software. Recent work with schools in Maine has shown the huge value of using a laptop across all of one's studies, as well as for play. Bringing the laptop home engages the family. In one Cambodian village where we have been working, there is no electricity, thus the laptop is, among other things, the brightest light source in the home.
Finally, regarding recycled machines: if we estimate 100 million available used desktops, and each one requires only one hour of human attention to refurbish, reload, and handle, that is forty-five thousand work years. Thus, while we definitely encourage the recycling of used computers, it is not the solution for One Laptop per Child.
How is it possible to get the cost so low?
* First, by dramatically lowering the cost of the display. The first-generation machine will have a novel, dual-mode display that represents improvements to the LCD displays commonly found in inexpensive DVD players. These displays can be used in high-resolution black and white in bright sunlight—all at a cost of approximately $35.
* Second, we will get the fat out of the systems. Today's laptops have become obese. Two-thirds of their software is used to manage the other third, which mostly does the same functions nine different ways.
* Third, we will market the laptops in very large numbers (millions), directly to ministries of education, which can distribute them like textbooks.
Why is it important for each child to have a computer? What's wrong with community-access centers?
One does not think of community pencils—kids have their own. They are tools to think with, sufficiently inexpensive to be used for work and play, drawing, writing, and mathematics. A computer can be the same, but far more powerful. Furthermore, there are many reasons it is important for a child to "own" something—like a football, doll, or book—not the least of which being that these belongings will be well-maintained through love and care.
What about connectivity? Aren't telecommunications services expensive in the developing world?
When these machines pop out of the box, they will make a mesh network of their own, peer-to-peer. This is something initially developed at MIT and the Media Lab. We are also exploring ways to connect them to the backbone of the Internet at very low cost.
What can a $1000 laptop do that the $100 version can't?
Not much. The plan is for the $100 Laptop to do almost everything. What it will not do is store a massive amount of data.
How will these be marketed?
The idea is to distribute the machines through those ministries of education willing to adopt a policy of "One Laptop per Child." Initial discussions have been held with China, Brazil, Thailand, and Egypt. Additional countries will be selected for beta testing. Initial orders will be limited to a minimum of one million units (with appropriate financing).
When do you anticipate these laptops reaching the market? What do you see as the biggest hurdles?
Our preliminary schedule is to have units ready for shipment by the end of 2006 or early 2007. Manufacturing will begin when 5 to 10 million machines have been ordered and paid for in advance.
The biggest hurdle will be manufacturing 100 million of anything. This is not just a supply-chain problem, but also a design problem. The scale is daunting, but I find myself amazed at what some companies are proposing to us. It feels as though at least half the problems are being solved by mere resolve.
How will this initiative be structured?
The $100 laptop is being developed by One Laptop per Child (OLPC), an independent, non-profit association created to design, manufacture, and distribute laptops that are sufficiently inexpensive to provide every child in the world access to knowledge and modern forms of education. It is based on the "constructionist" theories of learning pioneered by Seymour Papert and later Alan Kay, as well as on the principles expressed in Nicholas Negroponte's bestseller, Being Digital. OLPC is totally separate from MIT, with its own board, executives, location, and staff. Its members are Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), Brightstar, Google, News Corporation, Nortel Networks, and Red Hat.
OLPC is funding research at the Media Lab focused on developing the $100 Laptop.
Nicholas Negroponte is chairman of One Laptop per Child and Mary Lou Jepsen serves as chief technology officer. Other principals involved in developing the $100 Laptop are: Walter Bender, Michail Bletsas, V. Michael Bove, Jr., David Cavallo, Benjamin Mako Hill, Joseph Jacobson, Alan Kay, Tod Machover, Seymour Papert, Mitchel Resnick, and Ted Selker.
Design Continuum is collaborating on the laptop design.