The first £50 OLPC laptops could ship to children in emerging economies within months. PC Advisor speaks to the people behind the project to see how they made the impossible possible.

This article appears as part of the April 07 issue of PC Advisor, available now in all good newsagents

When plans to build and distribute a £50 laptop to schoolchildren in emerging economies were first announced two years ago, the people behind the scheme had their fair share of critics.

PC prices in western economies were believed to have hit rock bottom at around £400, yet here was an organisation hoping to shave off another £350.

On top of this, it promised to use traditionally expensive components, such as flat-panel displays and purpose-built hardware – including a power-generating hand crank – that looked ambitious, to say the least. It had never been done before and many believed it was mission impossible.

Two years down the line, the sceptics may be forced to eat humble pie. The OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) initiative is just months away from delivering the first units, with governments including those of Uruguay, Nigeria and Rwanda among those pledging to acquire millions of systems to distribute to children.

No cutting corners

After designing several prototypes, OLPC has whittled down the cost and hopes to deliver laptops for about $130 (£67) later this year, reaching the target of $100 in 2008.

But OLPC has opted against making sacrifices with quick-fix components for a limited, entry-level laptop. The designers wanted users to be able to surf the web, interact with friends and benefit from the computing advances that children in developed economies take for granted.

One of the most important choices was to use Linux as the OS (operating system), but this was not simply a question of cost-cutting. Microsoft and Apple offered versions of their OSes, but OLPC developers believed Linux would provide children with a better experience. The decision to use open-source software was down to OLPC's desire to give children a greater opportunity to explore and create on their own, while the ability to produce a purpose-built interface – now known as 'Sugar' – enabled the initiative to build the platform from the ground up.

The icon-based interface presents various 'views'. These include: a home view, where children will be able to access various apps; a friends view, allowing them to see which people they know are on the network; and a neighbourhood view, showing everyone connected to the network and the activities they're engaged in. Surrounding these views is a frame equivalent to the menu bar in more traditional user interfaces.

The child can click on people, places and other tools around the right, left and top sides of the frame, while the bottom is reserved for access to activities. Plus a context-sensitive search bar allows a child to easily locate items on the desktop.

But while the user experience sounds straightforward enough, putting together the system has been anything but. In fact, it's astonishing that the project has progressed from the pipe dream of MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) professor Nicholas Negroponte into a reality.
To find out exactly how it was done and to learn more about the challenges OLPC faces, we spoke to one of the key figures behind the scheme.

Jim Gettys has been a software pioneer on open-source systems for more than 20 years, from his role as a primary developer of the X Window System at MIT in 1984 (which forms the basis of Linux and Unix graphical interfaces) through to editing the W3C's (World Wide Web Consortium's) HTTP/1.1 protocol. He now finds himself as OLPC's vice-president of software.
Over the next couple of pages, Gettys describes the technical breakthroughs that will make the £50 laptop a reality, and answers the question on the lips of every western PC enthusiast: when will we be able to buy one?

Can you detail some of the restraints you've come across in developing a laptop for children from areas with little or no infrastructure? How do you get around these hurdles?

Power and readability in the sunlight are two of the major constraints we face. Most kids in the world have no electricity at home; even at school, power may not exist or be reliable. A machine that can be powered by a child, with a generator they can carry, constrains the amount of power that you can use tremendously. Experience has shown that even if you have generators at schools, the largest expense is often fuel for those generators.

Many kids are taught out in the sun, or need to be able to study out of doors, which requires a special monitor. Ruggedness is a major issue: conventional systems are unsuitable and could not survive the environment of many parts of the world – particularly in the hands of children. So we're using flash memory and a membrane keyboard.

What is the most challenging aspect of this project?

Understanding how most of the world lives, in contrast to the first world, then designing a system to work in that environment.

What has a Linux platform allowed you to offer that closed proprietary systems can't?

Computing is a large part of today's world: interested children should be able to see how computers work from the first instruction they execute at power-on. They can do so on this system. The Bios (LinuxBios), boot loader (Open Firmware), Linux, applications and environment can all be studied and understood by the children.

We're even including a 'view source' key on the keyboard. The power-management work required to support rapid suspend/resume from RAM, which greatly reduces its energy use, requires work in the Bios, operating system and applications. In a proprietary system, many or all of these components are closed to you and these kinds of power management would not be feasible.

What do you think is the most innovative feature of the laptop? What's its primary use?

Usually you would say "only one miracle per product", but the OLPC project has a number of miracles. One of these is the display. It can be manufactured at a much lower cost than conventional displays, has much lower power consumption and is readable in direct sunlight. The display can even be switched on while the CPU is off, which dramatically saves power output. And an OLPC system can be a mesh node even with the CPU off. It isn't only an inexpensive machine, but one that is like none other available in the world.

Thinking about the laptop from a very different perspective, without the constraints of closed systems, allowed us the freedom to go in directions that are novel.

The net result is a machine in which many modes of use can consume as little as half a Watt of power – for example, reading a book while forwarding packets in the mesh network – yet be able to run most of today's software. This contrasts with other systems, which use 10 times
the power and cost as much as four-to-10 times the price.

Is there much in the way of good, free educational software available for the laptop?

I think I'll turn the question around here: is there much in the way of good educational software available for any platform, particularly for young kids in the developing world? Unfortunately, the amount of good educational software is small for all computer systems, particularly for children who are preliterate or only just learning to read.

Since most kids in the world only get five to six years of elementary education, much of the existing educational software is of little use. There are 347 languages used by one million people or more in the world. There are examples of localisation through much smaller languages than those with a million speakers; in open-source systems, this can be done by any small group of motivated people.

Kids learn by doing, with each other and with their teachers – and 'teachers' are not just school teachers.

I recommend to your attention our user interface guidelines. You'll see that, from the base up, our system is aimed at enabling collaborative applications: browsing the web together, chat, playing music together and applications where kids learn by doing. Sugar is providing this infrastructure to make developing such applications much easier. This isn't just another desktop system.

Where will the software and content come from?

There is a significant amount of what I'd call conventional educational software for Linux already available. There are major projects such as LinEX in the Extremadura region of Spain. Adapting much of this work to Sugar is usually easy.

For content, there are resources such as Wikipedia, Wikibooks, conventional text books – many governments own the rights to the books they use – publishers and so on. And let us not forget about the schools and the kids themselves.

We are hardly starting from scratch. The basic technologies we use are those of free software systems: the Gecko rendering engine of Firefox, GTK+/Pango/atk and so on. The very fact that open-source and free software can be localised without asking anyone's permission is a great aid.
In fact, this project would not have been possible in its current form five years ago, had it even been possible to build the hardware. Instead, it has taken the evolution of the software and the communities around it worldwide to make a dream such as ours possible.

Will the focus of these applications be on static or interactive education?

Both. There will continue to be a major place for received wisdom – traditional textbooks, encyclopedias and the literature of the world – as well as interactive education. The OLPC laptop works well for reading books: our screen has a much higher resolution than a traditional laptop (200dpi) and is the size of most books.

The computers are much more economical if they can replace traditional books, which are a major expense and limit to where a child's interests can lead them. Internet access changes the availability of books from those on hand (very few in most schools) to what kids actually need and what interests them.

Interactive education, particularly collaborative creative activities, is very powerful. It is important to see that children and their teachers create, as well as consume, content. With the internet, this content can
be shared and improved.

How do you plan to minimise the risk of thieves stealing the laptops and selling them for profit?

To begin with, these are kids' laptops. When you see one in the hands of an adult, questions can be asked. Secondly, the incentive to steal is reduced greatly by our policy of 'One Laptop per Child' – areas the laptop goes to will be saturated with machines. Not only does this reduce the incentive to steal machines, but it is necessary for a mesh network to work efficiently.

Third, a stolen machine has a MAC address and can be potentially backtracked to its point of origin.

By making it the child's machine, it will be valued more than communal property at a school – it is something families will value. Finally, we are looking at some technological aids against theft, primarily to increase the chance of detecting stolen systems.

How much thought has been given to selling laptops to the developed world at inflated prices?

We've been thinking such thoughts, although there are no plans to date that I'm aware of. We'll probably make machines for adults look different to kids' machines when the time comes. There is great interest for machines like these everywhere we go.

What projects have you got lined up next?

This project isn't enough?

We're certainly looking forward to deployment of these laptops, and beginning thoughts about our second-generation system.