ONE CHILD, ONE COMPUTER, ONE HOPE

It's an ambitious project, to be sure, and it's not without its detractors, but the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative is on the verge of launching a revolution in the developing world. The brainchild of Nicholas Negroponte, founder of MIT's famous Media Lab, OLPC will attempt to put as many low-cost laptop PCs in the hands of as many children in poorer parts of the world as possible. In this month's feature, "The Laptop Crusade", Senior Editor Tekla S. Perry explains how over the next year the OLPC movement will begin delivering some 10 million computers to underprivileged kids around the globe.

With a goal of making 100 million such youngsters new PC users over the next few years, the OLPC is one of the most extensive charity efforts in recent times, even comparable to the great public library movement of a century ago. As Perry describes it, everything about the OLPC project is immense, except for the computers. Estimated to cost US $10 billion by completion, OLPC faces enormous challenges.

To begin, there are the technical hurdles: designing a computer that's rugged, useful, efficient, and cheap enough for African deserts and South American rain forests isn't going to be easy, as Perry points out. In fact, it has forced the OLPC team, with its abundance of former MIT engineers, to virtually reinvent the personal computer as we know it.

The first-generation product is equipped to function not only as a full-featured laptop but also as a game console, a home theater, and an e-book. Its motherboard is mounted directly behind the screen. For durability, it features a 2-millimeter-thick plastic shell (compared with the 1.3 mm used for most commercial laptops) a rubberized keyboard, and a gasket-sealed case. And instead of a hard disk drive, the OLPC unit uses 512 megabytes of flash RAM to run the 130 MB of applications and operating system, as well as saved files. "The technology is clock-stopping hot," one PC expert told Perry.

Beyond the technical merits of the plan, however, come social and logistical issues that are beyond current understanding. Any number of these may mean the unraveling of the entire enterprise. The project is counting on teachers, Perry notes, who may or may not welcome these electronic replacements for books. Money for the laptops will come out of already tight government budgets and will mean that other, perhaps better, government programs will lose funding. Theft of computers will undoubtedly be a problem, as will repair and maintenance. And what will happen when millions of computer-literate teens graduate into low-tech societies? Nobody knows, nor is anybody even trying to find out, she writes.

Still, Negroponte and his collaborators in government and industry are making the attempt to change the world via the power of personal computing. It has had a vast influence for good in the so-called developed nations over the past few decades. It deserves to be tried as well in areas of the world that have not experienced the bounty that people in those nations have grown accustomed to. Read Perry's feature article to learn more about this important campaign.

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