[Fsf-friends] [GNU]Linux gets One Laptop Per Child desktop boost

Frederick Noronha fred@[EMAIL-PROTECTED]
Wed Nov 22 02:09:59 IST 2006

Linux gets One Laptop Per Child desktop boost

Third-world Linux laptop computer to kickstart Linux on the desktop
Tom Sanders at Red Hat Summit in Nashville, vnunet.com 05 Jun 2006

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project will boost the market share of
Linux on the desktop to about 12 per cent, claimed the project's
chairman Nicholas Negroponte.

    * Click the link for a video of the first working OLPC prototype

"One of the side effects of the $100 laptop is that it will boost the
worldwide consumption of Linux on the desktop so incredibly that it
will, over a very short period of time, be at par with where it is in
the world of servers," Negroponte told delegates in a keynote at the
Red Hat Summit in Nashville.

The most recent server market share data from analyst firm IDC put the
Linux share of the server market at 12.2 per cent, with revenues
growing at a rate of 17 per cent year-over-year.

The One Laptop Per Child project aims to fight poverty in the
developing world by providing children with a personal laptop

The project is supported by the United Nations and the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology where Negroponte heads up the Media Lab.

The first working OLPC prototype was unveiled last week and the first
units are expected by December. OLPC is aiming for a $100 price tag,
but expects that to drop to $50 by 2010.

Microsoft and Intel have publicly criticised the project, claiming
that it is wrongly focusing on the cost of the hardware.

Intel launched its $400 Eduwise laptop in May targeting students in
developing nations.

Microsoft launched its pay-as-you-go FlexGo programme late last month
that allows consumers in developing nations to purchase a computer
that is activated with pre-paid cards and belongs to the user over

"If I'm annoying Intel and Microsoft, I know I'm probably doing
something right," Negroponte quipped.

* A video of the first working OLPC prototype is available on the
Silicon Valley Sleuth blog.

* * * * *

It's cute. It's orange. It's got bunny ears -- An update on the One
Laptop Per Child project

Ethan Zuckerman
June 7, 2006 1:30 PM

laptop100.jpg Recently, I visited with my friends Walter Bender and
Jim Gettys at the new headquarters of the One Laptop per Child
Project. I'm writing an article for the IEEE Spectrum on the project
and had asked Walter if I could come by and grill him on the technical
and conceptual details of the project. But that's really just an
excuse - I'm fascinated by the project, and am trying to offer what
help I can to Nicholas Negroponte and his team in helping people
understand what the project is and isn't, offering my perspective on
how the device might best be rolled out, supported and used in
developing nations.

One of the most interesting phenomena surrounding the One Laptop Per
Child project has been the amount of attention it's garnered, not just
from the development community, but from average users around the
world. Interest in the project seems to focus on a basic and very
compelling idea: a laptop that costs a hundred dollars or less. After
writing my earlier piece on OLPC, I now average 20 emails a week
asking to purchase the laptop, or recieve one as a gift. I now have a
keyboard macro that gives a stock response: I'm not officially
affiliated with the project, the laptop isn't available yet, and when
it is, it will be sold in lots of a million or more to governments and
school systems.

Most of the people who write me are interested in owning a laptop they
can afford. And that, it turns out, is not the goal of the One Laptop
Per Child project. Their goal is to produce a laptop designed for use
by children - students in grades K-12. And that requires radically
different design decisions than what one would make in simply creating
a low-cost laptop.

Getting across the distinction that this is a children's laptop, not
just a cheap laptop, is a surprisingly difficult task. When I last
wrote about the laptop on Worldchanging, a number of commenters
mentioned that they'd like one of the computers as a backup or travel
computer - I suspect they might feel differently after playing with
one of the current prototypes. They're really small. This is a good
thing - I wouldn't want a kindergarden student carrying around my 12"
PowerBook - it's too heavy and too fragile. The current prototype is
little, orange, and very, very cute. It has a molded plastic handle
and looks remarkably like a Speak and Spell.

It's got bunny ears - antenni for the 802.11s wireless radios, which
are designed to self-assemble meshes with other laptops. The ears fold
down to cover the USB, power and mic ports, an excellent design for
the sorts of dusty environments I can imagine the device used in. The
screen in the current prototype is a conventional LCD screen - the
screen in the production devices will be roughly the same size,
probably slightly larger than the 7.5" screen in the prototype, but
will be based around a technique that doesn't require white
fluorescent backlight. (Many of the questions I need to answer for the
IEEE article concern the screen, as it's one of the most expensive and
power-hungry components of the machine.) The keyboard is about 60% of
the size of a conventional keyboard and has calculator-style keys.

My favorite feature of the current prototype is the hinge that holds
the machine together. Ever since Nicholas outlined the engineering
challenges of building a good hinge, I've been fascinated by the
different ways people attach screens to laptops. As promised, the
laptop can be folded into an ebook, with the screen on top, used as a
handheld game player, or have the screen turned around so the machine
can be used as a video player. Walter tells me that Quanta, the
company responsible for manufacturing the machine, insisted on the
hinge used in the prototype because it's the only one they trusted to
stand up to the wear kids will put on the machine.

In other words, while I love it, I'm not trading my laptop in for one
any time soon. I suspect that low-cost computers designed by AMD and
others are likely more appropriate for most users than the laptop.
Again, that's okay - the goal isn't to capture the bottom end of the
laptop market - it's to give kids learning tools. If the laptop did
become popular on the low end of the market, it becomes a target for
theft -- which is one of the reasons the machine is a brilliant shade
of orange.

The one feature missing from the prototype I saw - the crank. It's
been clear - even before Kofi Annan broke the crank off an early
laptop prototype - that a power-generating crank attached to the
machine, like cranks are incorporated into FreePlay radios, might not
work. Jim, who has designed the motherboard of the machine and has
been focused on power consumption, helped me understand why.

156906265_83642237f0.jpg Contrary to what you learned in The Matrix,
human beings are lousy at generating electric power. Small children
are capable of generating between five and ten watts, for short
periods of time. Since conventional laptops draw about 6 to 8 watts
with their screens turned on, that's a real problem for a
child-powered laptop. The laptop needs to get much less power-hungry,
and power generation needs to maximize the output a child is capable
of. This means being ergonomically smart - use large muscle groups,
and use human-generated motion efficiently. A crank attached to a
laptop fails on both fronts - to crank a box, you fight the tendency
of the laptop to move in the opposite direction of the crank. This
means you either hold the laptop in one hand and crank with the other
- and do work with both arms - or put the laptop on a table and run
the good chance of it falling off a table. And cranks use small muscle
groups - the triceps, hand and wrist muscles.

The solution is to make power generation an external add-on. The team
is working on microgenerators that produce power using really big
cranks - ones you might anchor with a hole in a table, and crank using
your whole upper body. (Think Oompa Loompas in Wonka's chocolate
factory opening valves.) Other microgenerators use a pullcord, the
sort I use to start my lawnmower, or pedal power. And other power
sources, including solar panels, could plug into the input jack of the
machine. The current prototype accepts voltage from -23 to +23v, which
lets power hackers be very creative - and more than a little sloppy -
in providing power to the device. Got a power block for a laptop? If
you can make the connector fit, it will power the laptop.

The prototype I saw didn't have a battery installed, but the team has
decided to use nickel metal hydrid batteries rather than lithium ion.
The rationale? Lithium is not very tolerant of voltage spikes - you
need to regulate the power that enters the battery to prevent damage
to it. Human-generated power is neccesarily spiky, so regulating that
voltage means losing generated power. NiMH is less efficient than
Li-Ion in terms of power transfer, but the ability to capture spiky
power is worth the tradeoff-- and MnH batteries are somewhat easier to
dispose of in an environmentally conscious manner than Li-Ion.

The machine still needs to be miserly with power to be usable as a
human-charged device. And this is where the team have worked some
serious magic. When the machine is not in active use, it can act as a
mesh node, helping maintain a connectivity cloud over a village or
school while drawing only 0.5 watts - the wireless subsystem (a
Marvell chip with 100kb of RAM) operates independently of the main
processor and can forward packets with the CPU shut down. The machine
draws a similar amount of power in ebook mode, using a black and white
display. The display IC has a substantial frame buffer - this means it
can store a black and white image and display it without any
assistance from the CPU, again allowing the CPU to shut down and save
power. With the processor and color screen in action, the laptop draws
2 to 2.5 watts. To get the power consumption so low, Jim and the team
chose an older AMD chip - the Geode GX2 - rather than the newer chips,
which burn more power. Using the GX2 chip and the version of Fedora
Red Hat has been developing for the machine, many Linux packages run
on the laptop with almost no porting effort.

The board itself is designed to encourage hardware hacking - the 500
prototype boards currently built come with a VGA jack soldered on. But
production models will leave the jack leads etched on the board,
though unpopulated. Want to turn a laptop into a device that can drive
an external monitor? Solder one on. Also on the board but unpopulated
will be connectors for additional RAM and flash memory, as well as a
mini-PCI slot. A goal for the next iteration is a board with a wider
pitch, which makes it easier to repair the board or to hand-solder
additional connections. The case is designed to be easy to open and
access the innards - this makes it easier to make Frankenmachines from
dead machines, and also makes it easier to mass produce lots of these
devices quickly.

The storage capacity is decidedly modest - 128MB of RAM, 512MB of
flash memory instead of a hard drive. That 512MB has to hold the
operating system and applications, as well as any documents. No one's
going to be loading a complete copy of Wikipedia onto this any time
soon. That said, Walter showed me an early prototype of another orange
box - a wire/wireless interface. Basically, it's a wireless base
station, designed to connect some of the laptop mesh nodes to an
ethernet cable (presumably attached to a VSAT or some other device.)
The box acts as a peer on the network, not a server, but has a larger
storage capacity, so could serve as a document server as well as a web
cacheing server. And you just might load Wikipedia -- or an edited,
educational version of Wikipedia -- onto these boxes before
distributing them.

156904702_b05b33b875.jpg The prototype running at the OLPC offices was
running GNOME on top of Fedora, and looked very much like one expects
a Linux desktop to look. This is not what most children will see when
they turn on the machine, but it's important to the designers that the
machine be designed in layers, like an onion. (Or a parfait. Software
designers like parfait.) For expert users who want to develop on the
system, the laptop will ship with gcc, gtk, and the other stuff you
need to build and distribute software. In addition, the software will
include three development environments: Python, Javascript and

Logowiki, from what I've seen of it, is amazingly cool. It starts from
a collection of wiki pages, like Wikipedia, and treats pages as
computational objects. This means that the Wikipedia page on Logo
would run Logo, letting you try out functions and move the turtle
around. This opens up some amazing possibilities - wiki pages about
physics that include programmable models that help you understand
acceleration or momentum, for instance. And, indeed, you can come onto
logowiki and play with little programs that build spirals or calculate

Wikis are important to the architecture of the software for another
reason - they're part of the subversive strategy behind the machine.
The OLPC team won't have control over what content is loaded onto the
laptop in different countries - that's the decision of individual
education ministries. But by using wikis as a content management
system - rather than, say, a PDF viewer - the team manages to sneak in
the idea of user-generated content into schools. Perhaps most textbook
pages will be protected in a wiki structure - wiki features like
discussion pages will still exist, opening new possibilities for how
kids interact with schoolbooks.

Walter explains that the fundamental design goals for the software of
the project are to give students and teachers tools that leverage
their ability to learn, their ability to be expressive and their
ability to be social. A simple interface - more for discussion than a
rough draft of any actual interface - shows some of these ideas. It's
a tabbed interface, like a web browser, which holds applications like
a word processor in some of the windows. Another window holds a
graphical chat program, designed to let a student type or draw
messages to another student - the chat is aware of what other students
are logged on and proximate to the machine. The goal is not to isolate
students from one another, having them stare into their machines, but
to encourage them to communicate through the machines.

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