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One Laptop per Child: A Grand Vision

By: Medhi Gazor, Forsat
The One Laptop Per Child initiative, announced by Nicholas Negroponte of the MIT Media Lab at the World Economic Forum in January 2005, aims to one day deliver inexpensive laptop computers to the world's children. The significant technical challenges to building the laptops, the coordination involved to deliver them, and the education of the many children who use them may help the entire world benefit.
Nicholas Negroponte is best known as a founder and professor of the MIT Media Lab, but his new One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative may one day mark his place in history on a much grander scale. Negroponte is spearheading the OLPC program, whose mission is to develop a $100 laptop for distribution to the world's children. The self-stated goal of OLPC is "to provide children around the world with new opportunities to explore, experiment, and present themselves" [1]. The initiative is based on the premise that education is a solution to many problems in the world, including poverty.
The laptop will use a 500MHz AMD processor, 128MB of RAM, 512MB of flash memory for storage, and a dual-mode display that can switch between color and black-and-white to improve readability in sunlight [2]. One component in traditional laptops that is missing in the $100 laptop is a hard drive. A hard drive is typically used to locally store the operating system, applications, files, and data, but is presumably being left out of the $100 for several reasons. The laptop is being designed for lightweight internet use, and has no need for a multimedia repository like most computers on the market today. In addition, a hard drive will increase the likelihood of mechanical failure, add significant power consumption, and add unwanted cost to the laptop. 
For a power source, the laptop was originally designed to have a hand crank on the side that physically needed to be wound to generate power. Recently, Negroponte announced that that idea was thrown out due to the fear that the torque generated from the crank could damage the laptop. An alternative power supply has not been named, but Negroponte envisions a foot pedal. Negroponte envisions that the laptop will be using about 2 watts when in operation, with 1 watt of power used for the display. To put that in perspective, your home PC operates on about 300 watts of power. A lightweight version of Linux must be developed for the laptops to operate at such power efficiency, which Negroponte cites as one of the biggest technical challenges for the project. 
The core enabling technology behind the laptop, however, is mesh networking. Each laptop is designed to serve as a relay node in a giant network mesh, sharing its internet connection with any other laptops nearby. Feasibly, this could help deliver an internet connection to laptop users in remote parts of developing countries, enabling them to do research for their homework online, send email, and do other internet related tasks. A mesh network could also be local, consisting of a teacher and his or her students, who could chat online with each other or collaborate on school tasks.
Taiwan's Quanta computer recently won the contract for developing these machines. Quanta, the world's biggest producer of laptops, is renowned for its production volume and its razor thin profit margins, estimated at 3%. Quanta's CEO estimates that the OLPC laptop deal could add between $3 billion to $5 billion to its yearly revenue, and believes they can produce the laptops at similar margins to their current business [4]. The laptop is set to pilot in China, Brazil, Argentina, Egypt, Thailand, Nigeria, and India in the first quarter of 2007, distributing 5 million to 10 million laptops to children in those countries. As of April 2006, OLPC has marked Iran as being interested in the initiative at the Ministry of Education level or higher [1]. OLPC aims to sell the laptops for $135 when they release in 2007, then cut the price to $100 in 2008 and $50 in 2010 [2]. Laptops would be bought in bulk from governments of the associated countries for distribution to the children.
The OLPC initiative has its critics, including the chairmen of Microsoft Corporation and Intel Corporation. Microsoft's Bill Gates was recently quoted as saying: "If you are going to go have people share the computer, get a broadband connection, and have somebody there who can help support the user, geez, get a decent computer where you can actually read the text and you're not sitting there cranking the thing while you're trying to type." Intel's Craig Barrett was also skeptical of the idea, saying "I think a more realistic title should be 'the $100 gadget.' It turns out what people are looking for is something that has the full functionality of a PC... not dependent on servers in the sky to deliver content and capability to them, not dependent on hand cranks for power" [3].
The $100 laptop, if successful, would not only help to educate the world's children in developing countries, but would solve some of the most difficult problems in technology today. These include mesh networking, ultra-low cost production, low-cost digital displays, and ultra-lightweight operating systems. From a philanthropic and technical perspective, the laptop may one day help the world in more ways than imagined.
[1] One Laptop Per Child. Accessed: April 9, 2006.
[2] Shankland, Stephen. CNET April 4, 2006. Accessed: April 9, 2006.
[3] Bill Gates Mocks $100 Laptop. Red Herring. March 16, 2006. Accessed: April 9, 2006.
[4] Einhorn, Bruce. Quanta's $100 Laptop Challenge. Business Week. December 20, 2005. Accessed: April 9, 2006.

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