I was looking at the One Laptop Per Child project â€” that’s the initiative that has to goal of designing a computer at a price less than $100USD, particularly targeted for education in third world countries. There are some really smart and creative people working on making the vision of an education project real. In fact, I’m impressed that there seem to be some features for a product targeted for children that I typically don’t see on my business-class computer.
1. Neighborhood mode
Image: Neighbourhood view mode from laptop.org
Inside every OLPC laptop is a built-in wireless router. This means that a child knows about other laptops near his or her machine. The child can see activities running on the other machines, and can choose to share (or not share) with his or her buddies. This comes out of the mesh networking functionality of the computer.
Image: Size comparison from laptop.org
This computer is designed for children, so while it’s got a full keyboard, it’s smaller than the usual size. On the other hand, if you travel on airplanes as much as I do, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. (It’s got to be better than using my thumbs on my mobile phone or PDA).
3. Low power battery consumption (with alternate energy sources)
If you’ve ever run out of power on a laptop, you will appreciate this. The battery and power design assumes that there may or may not be an electrical outlet nearby, so solar energy and hand-cranked generators (e.g. the Freecharge portable charger) are options. In theory, you’re never away from a power source.
4. Object-oriented programming and scripting environment
If you ever took a computer programming course in college (or high school, if you’re under the age of 30), you might be dismayed that modern operating systems seem to assume that people don’t write code anymore. In keeping with Alan Kay’s vision of the Dynabook, the Squeak programming language is included in the computer. If that’s overkill, and you want to just automate some keystrokes with a macro, there’s a Scratch scripting environment built on top of Squeak.
5. Simple user interface on top of 100% open source software
The Sugar user interface is designed to be simple enough for children (and presumably adults wouldn’t take long to figure it out, either!) This is one part of the of the open source software suite built on top a Linux kernel (in particular the Fedora core). Since Python runs on Unix, Windows and Macintosh platforms, there may be a natural route to port some applications over this platform for kids.
6. Feed reader for video blogs
Image: User interface from penguintv.sourceforge.net
As an example of software that gets developed in the open source community that is ported over to a Linux platform, PenguinTv has a version that works on this platform. This is something not for the Tivo generation, but for the YouTube generation!
Okay, with all of these features, you may ask: how can I get one of these computers? You can’t. The target customers for this product is national governments. There was a pledgebank for a $300 retail model, but it fell below the target 100,000 units to get this going. This is not say that a retail market won’t emerge, but that’s not the goal for this project. Once this $100 computer gets into wide distribution in third world countries, I expect that buyers in the first world will start questioning the $1500 price tag typically on their laptops.
There’s a second thought, though. Who really needs a ruggedized computer away from civilization for indefinite periods of time? The two strongest communities for this technology would seem to be survivalists … and the military. Maybe this will be one of those cases where military applications could lead consumer applications.