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One child, one laptop

The purpose of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project is to get a computer into the hands of children in as many developing nations as possible. With otherwise complicated technology, one would think that children would need manuals, training or schooling to understand how to use computers. OLPC organizers, however, don’t think this is the case.

“We found that kids taught themselves,” said Nicholas Negroponte, speaking at the American Council for Technology/Industry Advisory Council Management of Change conference last month. Negroponte said children would learn to use their laptop PCs through discovery instead of training.

Negroponte left his post as director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab in February to focus on the OLPC project, which he conceived. So far, interest has been extremely high in developing countries and in the tech world, he said. Brazil is the latest country to support the initiative.

The prototype laptop PCs have an inexpensive dual-mode LCD screen that can switch to a glare-resistant black-and-white screen. Inside is a 500 MHz Advanced Micro Devices processor, 128M of DRAM and 500M of flash memory. The operating system is a pared-down version of Red Hat Linux. The prototypes have four USB ports.

One prototype has wireless mesh connectivity via “rabbit ears,” which means that multiple laptops can form a wireless network. When they are turned off, the laptops use a minimal amount of power to continue functioning as routers.

Another unique characteristic is the laptop’s power requirements. It can run on less than 2 watts and be powered by various methods, including a hand crank mounted on the AC adaptor. The crank can be removed to allow for an alternate motor method.

“Kids can get their little brothers and sisters involved by having them crank the machine while the older sibling works with it,” Negroponte joked. The crank was originally placed alongside the laptop, but in the post-design phase, the team realized it would put serious physical stress on the machine.

Cost is one of the project’s big hurdles. The machine’s other moniker, the “$100 Laptop,” isn’t entirely accurate because the first release will cost $130 to $140 dollars. Negroponte said flash memory is the most expensive component, but he believes falling prices will allow OLPC to offer the laptop for $100 by 2008.

Federal procurement officers should take note of the price because OLPC is also planning a commercial subsidiary for modernized countries.

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