The "One Laptop per Child" program (OLPC) is a promising contribution to democracy and to children's lives. OLPC, a Delaware non-profit organization created by MIT Media Lab faculty, is developing the Children's Machine XO Laptop (formerly called the $100 laptop). They plan to design, manufacture, and distribute inexpensive laptops to give every child in the world access to knowledge and modern forms of education.
"The $100 laptop is an education project, and the motivation is to eliminate poverty," said Chairman Nicholas Negroponte. But what is this little machine like, beyond its small, appealing size and virtual indestructibility? It will be able to do most everything except store huge amounts of data. Kids can take it home and let their parents use it too.
Some 2,500 of them were field-tested last spring in Uruguay, Peru, Nigeria, Thailand, and Libya. They were overwhelmingly successful, but the problem is with the cost and distribution plan.
"Boot a system for the first time," said Negroponte, "and if the machine sees a mesh, 'poof,' you're on the network....Here is the opportunity for computer users to share information directly, without the need for an Internet connection or overly-complicated direct connections."
Some countries aren't buying the plan: Negroponte had insisted that the OLPCs be purchased in units of one million, by departments of education in less-developed countries, which can get loans from the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank. Only these "emerging market" countries can be considered as potential buyers. The very poor will not be included in this round, or even the poorest children in more remote areas of the current purchasers. That is a major disappointment. However, only this large scale allows the price to be so low and in fact if all the original interested parties such as India and China had agreed to purchase, the price would indeed be $100. Now some countries plan to create their own machines.
The OLPC project could have adopted "open-sourcing," which would have enabled interested countries to construct OLPC hardware and software in their own factories, thereby keeping much of the money in their country. But Quanta in Taiwan was licensed to produce all the machines world wide, causing a potential $1.5B transfer of wealth from the developing world to Taiwan.
Next OLPC stated that schools should have a server for every hundred laptops. One server per school would actually suffice. Brazil was going to be licensed to manufacture the servers for all schools worldwide. Thus the country could have regained some of the money spent on the computers. However, Brazil seems not to have concluded the deal. Now, counting servers and technical support, the real cost is $208 per laptop.
Now Negroponte has allowed that 250,000 can be purchased at one time, so a few more countries have signed on to the initiative
Rwanda and Libya have decided to purchase one for every child. Nigeria will buy 1.2 million. In Mexico Carlos Slim, described as the world's richest man, will buy 250, 000 of them. Uruguay, Peru, Thailand, and Egypt are interested but not yet committed to a purchase deal.
However there are plans to expand availability to all children. Philanthropists and groups of NGOs working together could raise funds to purchase the laptops for a country of their choice. If supplied to a functioning but impoverished school system where some teachers were trained and where some electricity is available, then satellite service can be set up, servers put in, and all the children within walking distance given laptops. You can see donation forms at www.vikingdev.com/contribute (I've been in touch with them and it's a valid site.)
See the OLPC site at <www. lap top.org> and an ongoing critique at <www.olpcnews.com>.
Technically, the OLPC XO Laptop will be Linux-based, with a dual-mode display--both a full-color, transmissive DVD mode, and a second display option that is black and white reflective and sunlight-readable. It will have a 500MHz AMD x86 process and have 128MB of DRAM and Flash memory of 1 gigabyte, an upgraded chipset to a Geode LX700. and lithium iron phosphate batteries. It will use fewer than 2 watts of power, generated by wind-up power. A Wi-Fi mesh network will provide connectivity. Each laptop will be able to talk to its nearest neighbors, creating an ad hoc, local area network. There will be three or four USB ports.
Joan Montgomerie, a Toronto psychotherapist, is an editor at Peace Magazine.