Nicholas Negroponte’s $100 laptop is a sweet piece of engineering. But can it really change the world?
Illustration: Darren Hopes
Within the next 12 months, as many as 10 million laptop computers will be distributed to children in Argentina, Brazil, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Rwanda, and Uruguay. Countless youngsters who live in remote villages, perhaps without electricity, who may not have access to clean water or health care, will suddenly have computing power pretty close to that of businesspeople and college students.
It’s one of the biggest nonprofit technology-based projects in a decade, and yet it’s only the first phase of a program that seeks to put a staggering 100 million laptops into the hands of developing-world schoolchildren in the next couple of years, at a cost of at least US $10 billion. By any standard, the numbers are enormous: 100 million laptops is double the number produced annually throughout the world today. Simply meeting that target would almost surely cause global shortages of liquid-crystal displays and other key components.
The initiative, known as the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, is the brainchild of Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of MIT’s Media Lab, who announced the project at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in 2005. Hardly anyone questions the worthiness of the project’s goals, but just about everything else about it has been fair game.
First, there are the technical challenges: designing a computer that’s rugged, useful, superefficient, and cheap enough for the Libyan deserts and the Brazilian rain forests isn’t easy, to put it mildly. In fact, it has forced the One Laptop team, with its abundance of former MIT engineers, to reinvent the portable computer as we know it.
Then there are the social and logistical issues. The project is counting on teachers, 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. Nobody is even trying to find out.
Sometime next year, if all goes according to plan and the organization is selling millions of laptops every month, economies of scale are supposed to bring the manufacturing cost of an individual laptop down to $100. It’s now somewhere around $150. From that gallant goal has come the program’s informal identification as the $100 laptop project.
The One Laptop effort is just one of at least 20 low-cost computing initiatives under way worldwide [see the online sidebar, “Other Roads to Computing for All”]. But it’s the biggest, best-funded, and most hyped of all the initiatives, so it’s the one that will almost certainly determine whether the mass distribution of PCs to children becomes an enduring component of national development or just another well-meaning but ultimately misguided experiment in social engineering.
Without a doubt, Negroponte has captured the world’s imagination with the $100 laptop. Since his 2005 announcement, he has worked the international media to develop momentum for the project, even conducting demonstrations of the device for global figures like Kofi Annan, former secretary-general of the United Nations. In 2006, the project spun out of MIT into a nonprofit called One Laptop Per Child. That June, the team demonstrated a working proto type. The pilot phase of the project, just getting under way now, promises to roll out at least a million laptops in each of at least five different developing nations.
As of January, the OLPC team believed it had brought on board at least seven countries. Commitments in this arena are notoriously fungible; people rise and fall in government power structures, and a commitment made by one official may not be honored by others. Still, Michail Bletsas, chief connectivity officer for the organization, says OLPC has more than reached its goal of 5 million orders for delivery in the first year—that is, by early 2008.
Those who have struggled for years to bring the developing world into the Internet age are watching these efforts closely. For the most part, they are thrilled about the technology but are worried about the sales strategy, which is to sell the PCs in lots of 1 million to national ministries of education for deployment throughout national school systems. The ministries are using funds that otherwise would go to buy textbooks, leading some wags to declare that it’s a “$100 million laptop,” not a $100 laptop.
And, typically, schools in developing countries are already struggling with an array of problems—overcrowded classrooms, incompetent or absent teachers, and a lack of textbooks, chalk, and other basic materials. “It’s right out of Alice in Wonderland,” says Atanu Dey, chief economist for Netcore Solutions, in Mumbai, India. “When Alice meets the Cheshire cat, she says that she’s seen a cat without a smile but never a smile without a cat. I’ve seen a school with teachers, blackboards, and books without laptops, but I’ve never seen a school with laptops but without teachers and the rest.”
Others worry that theft or government corruption will mean money will be spent but laptops won’t get to students. And even if the computers are properly distributed, it’s easy to imagine that some teachers may become miffed when their more computer-literate students start using their laptops to chat and pass notes during class (they’re all wireless-equipped).
Says Lee Felsenstein, chief technical officer of Fonly, a product development firm in Palo Alto, Calif., and a pioneer in personal computer design, “The kids will pass notes. It happened in college lecture halls, and the teachers turned the wireless network off, because no teacher allows the passing of notes in class. Likely, the laptops will be banned from classrooms.”
The computers are engineering marvels. So far, preproduction models have been built. Each rugged, self-networking unit has a screen that is readable in darkness or full sunlight. “The technology is clock-stopping hot,” says Wayan Vota, director of International Executive Service Corps Geekcorps, a nonprofit organization that works with information and communications technologies in the developing world.
These $100 laptops (well, okay, $150 laptops) have capabilities beyond those of units costing 10 times more. The first-generation product is equipped to function not only as a fully featured laptop but also as a game console, a home theater, and an e-book. In practice, this diversity of uses means the user must be able to fold the screen back against the top of the computer, to hold it like a book, as well as to stand the screen up perpendicular to the keyboard to share it with groups.
Designers made this kind of flexibility possible by mounting the motherboard directly behind the screen. As a result, the hinge contains only the wires to the keyboard, not the large number of fragile connections embedded within a traditional laptop hinge. It’s just one of several clever innovations that address the computer’s unique niche.
In the developed world, most laptops are traded in for new ones every few years. But the youngsters in the OLPC program will be driving theirs, so to speak, for the computer equivalent of 500 000 kilometers. And they are, after all, kids, so their computers need to be as close to indestructible as possible. The models going out now have a 2-millimeter-thick plastic shell, compared with the 1.3 mm used for most commercial machines. When folded, the laptop seals with a rubber gasket, to keep out water and dust. The rubberized keyboard also helps protect the innards from liquids and dirt.
This model does without the three components that most frequently fail in laptops: the hard drive, the cooling fan, and the monitor screen’s fluorescent backlight. Lacking a hard drive, the system will store its 130 megabytes of applications and operating system plus any documents on 512 MB of flash RAM. Light-emitting diodes will illuminate the display, and the designers decided that with a low-power processor and no hard drive, they could get by without a fan. Even in hot environments, this lack of a fan is not likely to be a problem, says Felsenstein.
Electric power in the developing world is usually spotty, where it is available at all. And the OLPC people have clearly taken that to heart. In addition to charging from the electric grid, their machine can also charge from a 12-volt car battery, which frequently doubles as a power system in developing nations.
And it can be manually charged, too. Some preliminary proto types had hand cranks that charged the unit’s lithium-ion battery. But the cranks used small muscle groups in the wrist and forearm and proved difficult for young children to turn for more than a few minutes—far short of the half hour of cranking that might be required to power the laptop for a school day’s use.
Yo-yo a Go-go: This portable pull-string power generator may prove to be a successful commercial product in its own right. Image: Potenco
Members of the OLPC team, working with product design firm Squid Labs, in Alameda, Calif., found that a small child, using her arms to power a hand crank, could produce only 5 to 10 watts for a few minutes before her arms got tired. It would take about 10 minutes of cranking out 5 W to power the machine for 20 minutes in its color graphics mode.
The OLPC designers considered solar cells but rejected them as too expensive. They then turned to Squid Labs, which came up with an ingenious solution: a microgenerator powered by a pull string, similar to the assembly used to start a lawn mower. The first prototypes arrived in January and were quickly dubbed yo-yos [see photo, “Yo-Yo a Go-Go”]. Squid Labs has since spun off the project into Potenco, also in Alameda, which plans to commercialize the product.
The user holds the yo-yo—a separate accessory about the size of two hockey pucks stacked together—in her left hand, grips a handle in her right, and pulls a meter-long cord. The cord spins a fine shaft at roughly 2000 revolutions per minute. An embedded microcontroller adjusts the flow of power to the battery so that the generator operates at maximum efficiency, even while the generator speed slows as the child’s arm tires out.
The designers expect adults and children 12 and older to be able to produce 20 W using this generator for short periods of time and 10 W for longer periods. Again, children younger than 12 will tire quickly. The device will cost about $10 to manufacture in quantity, Bletsas says. Potenco hopes to eventually sell the yo-yos commercially to charge cellphones and other devices.
People tend to love or hate the yo-yos. Supporters note that as separate units, they can be easily replaced. That’s important because, like all moving parts, they’re bound to wear out.
But Felsenstein isn’t thrilled with them. Using a spring for power generation is not an advantage, he says. Each time you pull the string, some of the potential power is sidetracked into rewinding the cord. And, because the human body is bilaterally symmetric, a device using both sides of the body—both hands or both feet—to generate power is much more appropriate.
Whatever their disadvantages, the yo-yos will make it possible, at least, for kids without access to electricity to use the machine. Bletsas says it will likely take 2 and a half hours to fully charge the battery using the pull-cord microgenerator. And a fully charged preproduction model will run for 25 hours in its lowest power-consumption mode—that is, displaying pages of text with the backlight off. Web browsing with the backlight on will deplete the battery within 6 hours.
Making a device that can run on kid power means making design choices that favor power efficiency [see “Little Green Kid Machine”]. Typical laptops today can consume as much as 30 W of power, depending on what they are doing. The target for the first generation of the laptop was 2.5 W with the processor and color screen active—an astonishing 92 percent reduction in consumption; the prototypes run at about 3 W for normal use. That, Bletsas says, is still not as low as it needs to be to make sense as a human-powered device, although it does make human power a useful auxiliary source of electricity.
Much of the efficiency stems from the use of a low-power microprocessor, the Geode GX email@example.comW made by Advanced Micro Devices, in Sunnyvale, Calif. It is a 32-bit microprocessor with an integrated graphics subsystem and a memory controller that operates at 366 megahertz and draws less than 2 W of power. It isn’t cheap: it costs more than $20 in quantities of at least 10 000.
Aside from the processor, the most power-hungry subsystem of a laptop is the display. The OLPC design team found ways to cut power here, too. When the child uses the computer as an e-book, the display buffer stores a copy of the screen being displayed—this allows the central processor to shut down until a new image needs to be produced. Displaying in gray scale, with the processor off, the machine draws a mere half watt of power.
The ability to switch—from color to gray scale and back again—is perhaps the computer’s most exciting innovation. Says Geekcorps’s Vota, “When I first saw the screen, I was so in awe I forgot to take photographs—and I’m always taking photographs.” And its manufacturing cost, some $30 to $35 instead of $130 for a conventional laptop LCD screen, is also impressive.
Mary Lou Jepsen, the CTO of the OLPC project and the former CTO of Intel’s now-defunct display division, worked with Taiwanese display manufacturer Chi Mei Optoelectronics to develop this display [see “Dream Jobs 2007,” IEEE Spectrum, February]. At its heart, the display is a reflective black-and-gray LCD. The basic technology, ubiquitous in cheap watches, calculators, and other consumer electronics products, uses a polarizing film to control the reflection of light.
When a pixel is on, the chain of liquid-crystal molecules untwists, and because light isn’t reflected back through the film, the pixel appears dark. Such displays are easily readable in bright light. In fact, the brighter, the better: the more light available to be reflected, the greater the contrast between darks and lights. The screen resolution of the OLPC’s reflective LCD is 1200 by 900 pixels.
Pushing a button turns on a backlight—in this case, a panel of LEDs—and adds color to the picture. Conventional color LCD screens use a fluorescent white backlight, not LEDs. Filters at each tiny picture element absorb colors from the white light to define that pixel’s red, green, and blue components. The problem is that these filters absorb 80 percent of the light emitted by the fluorescent light, wasting power, and the filters are a third of the manufacturing cost.
So the OLPC display uses white LEDs, which provide purer light. That purity means that the filters don’t have to be as dense to block out unwanted wavelengths, so a lot more light gets through. The OLPC team also designed the colored elements of the display to operate at a much lower resolution than the basic gray display—800 by 600 pixels. Because the higher resolution black-and-gray image still shows, the perceived resolution is closer to that 1200-by-900 resolution. As a result, even in color mode, the screen uses less than 14 percent of the power of a conventional LCD.
The tradeoff for the increased daylight readability, lower cost, and lower power consumption is color saturation. That is, the colors look washed out compared with a more traditional display. That’s okay, as far as Bletsas is concerned: “You don’t need HDTV—you need to be able to read with a little color.”
Such a dual-mode display, to date, has never been available in a commercial laptop and will likely migrate into commercial products. “I would love to be able to turn off the backlight of my computer so I could read it outside,” says Vota.
Jamais Cascio, cofounder of Worldchanging.com, in Seattle, is excited about the display for another reason. “These will become the de facto evening lights in many homes,” he says. “Light at night is a deficiency in many developing nations that is underappreciated. Without artificial light, you can’t read or do homework—the day is shorter. People will use these to read conventional books.” (Worldchanging is a Web site covering advances in science and technology that have the potential to do social good.)
Interesting as the power and display innovations are, the technical area most crucial to the laptops’ success will probably be networking. The laptops are equipped with Wi-Fi radios costing about $10 each, allowing a group of laptops to establish a mesh network among themselves. These radios are built to IEEE 802.11s, a standard for mesh networks due to be finalized this year; the OLPC developers jumped the gun and designed their product according to a draft standard.
The laptop’s “bunny ears” are external Wi-Fi antennas that typically provide 5 decibels of gain, better than the internal Wi-Fi antenna in a garden-variety laptop. Most of that improvement comes from the fact that the OLPC’s antennas are mounted vertically above the display lid, rather than inside it, as in most laptops.
Bletsas says his design will provide node-to-node connectivity over 600 meters. Over a flat area without buildings and with low radio noise, that connection can stretch to 1.2 km. Students can put their computers on the mesh network simply by flipping the antennas up. This turns on the Wi-Fi subsystem of the machine without waking the CPU, allowing the laptop to route packets while consuming just 350 milliwatts of power.
Bletsas says that in this router mode, a fully charged computer will run for 24 hours. As a side bonus, students are likely to learn something about mesh networks—if you fail to turn up your antennas or keep your laptop charged, two of your friends might not be able to chat through your node.
The mesh network feature lets students in the same classroom share a virtual whiteboard with a teacher, chat (okay, gossip) during class, or collaborate on assignments. If the school has a connection to the Internet via phone or satellite, a computer with essentially the same hardware as the laptop but with the addition of an Ethernet interface and a hard drive will act as a server for the school network and a router for Internet connections. The OLPC program expects to be able to produce the servers for €100, or about US $130.
Internet connectivity in the developing world is rare today, but the presence of so many Internet-capable computers in a school may spark administrators to invest in Internet connections. That’s the hope, anyway. And Bletsas says his team is doing everything it can to make that a reality, including negotiating for low-cost Internet connections for the schools in an entire country, and developing school servers with solar-powered repeaters.
The final key piece of computing hardware is the 512 MB of flash memory, costing as much as $20. “This is one place the designers clearly made a compromise to get the total component cost down,” says Ethan Zuckerman, a research fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. “The device would be more useful with 1 gigabyte of memory, but that would have cost an extra $20.”
The OLPC initiative is pioneering software as well as hardware. Both Apple and Microsoft made high-profile overtures to the OLPC project, offering their operating systems for free. But both were spurned in favor of Linux, because OLPC engineers wanted an operating system that could be regularly fine-tuned without charge.
So the machines will be delivered with a specially modified version of Red Hat Linux. Red Hat tweaked its Fedora Core Linux to meet the unusual needs of the project. One of them is reversibility. “Children must be allowed to play,” one of the project documents notes. Any mistakes they make that cause a machine to become unstable, the document explains, have to be easily reversible, perhaps through something as simple as a reset button.
The OLPC team also constructed a completely new user environment, code-named Sugar, designed to break down the isolation that students might experience from staring at laptops all day. It introduces the concept of “presence”—the idea behind instant-messaging buddy lists. The user interface is aware of other students in the classroom, showing their pictures or icons on the screen, allowing students to chat or share work with others in the class [see photo, “Sugar, Sugar”].
Sugar, Sugar: In designing their user interface, named Sugar, the OLPc team abandoned the desktop metaphor, reasoning that it is both outdated and irrelevant in societies where desks are scarce. Instead, Sugar displays a world of collaborators, clustered around icons representing work in progress. Image: Mike McGregor
The system shares with the other students new tasks, like a drawing or a document, by default, though students can choose to make them private. Sugar creates a “blog” for each child—a record of the activities they engaged in during the day—which lets them add public or private diary entries. The laptop will come with drawing and music software.
With Sugar, the team consciously avoided the desktop metaphor, a decision that has drawn surprisingly widespread support. For one, it is time to break away from the decades-old desktop and windows metaphor and try something new, some argue. And, they say, what better place to do this than in the developing world, where people don’t have desks to begin with.
That’s the OLPC group’s vision of low-cost computing. But whether that vision will lead to success or failure won’t be determined until the first wave of their computers reaches developing-world schools. And that has some people worried.
“In principle, the OLPC will create a mass migration of technology into the hands of the people who need it,” says Cascio of Worldchanging.com. “But I question whether there will be the kind of support necessary from the governments. I’m not so worried that the money will come from the mouths of the hungry—I worry about government focus. Will the government of Libya, having given computers to schoolkids, say, ‘Well, we’ve done our part—we don’t have to do anything else; if these people don’t better themselves now...forget them.’”
Indian economist Dey is concerned with government corruption. “If we have 1 million laptops to distribute among a population of 100 million, who will get them? Whoever pays the most,” he insists. “People will make money giving these away, and they will go to the haves. It will increase the divide between the haves and the have nots.”
Geekcorps’s Vota sees the costs to the countries, even at $100 a unit, as a major problem. He calculates that Nigeria, with approximately 4 million schoolchildren, would spend 73 percent of its entire annual government income to equip them with laptops, without even considering the costs of educational software, teacher training, or connecting those laptops to the Internet.
The OLPC organization, by contrast, presents the laptop as a bargain. It states in its documents that providing laptops is faster and less expensive than building and equipping schools and hiring and training teachers.
So widespread teacher training is not part of the rollout plan. Some training is likely to be available, but for the most part, the OLPC team envisions teachers learning about computing and the Internet alongside their students.
“This,” says Felsenstein,” is a radical rejection of institutional education. And when the teachers find out that they are considered obstacles, not part of the process, they will resist the process.” He pictures the laptops being used not in the classroom, but outside the schools, without the supervision of adults. And this worries him.
“Unsupervised adolescents will likely get into trouble,” he says. “They’ll use them for illegal activity, gang activity, criminal activity. At best, when the adults find the kids getting into trouble, they’ll take the laptops away; at worst, there will be a breakdown of societies.”
Cascio envisions a less apocalyptic, but still troubling, scenario. He thinks some teachers will simply sell the laptops and use the proceeds to buy books.
And, it seems, OLPC planners have anticipated that scenario, too. The computer isn’t housed in a brightly colored case just to appeal to children; when it is in an office, it will be obvious that the machine has been taken from a child. But even proponents acknowledge that there will be a black market for them, along with reimportation to the developed world.
But as the Berkman Center’s Zuckerman sees it: “This won’t be a huge problem if the school systems that distribute them assume, say, a 5 percent loss annually and can easily replace them. It will be a disaster if the loss of a laptop ends a child’s educational career.”
And the computers will fail and will need to be repaired. Because the design team eliminated moving parts, the creators expect repairs to be minimal, but, Bletsas said, screens will indeed occasionally break and will need to be replaced. He expects the development of a repair infrastructure to happen organically.
Zuckerman agrees. “My experience in the developing world is that repair networks develop informally,” he says. “In every African village, for example, is at least one person who repairs cars. With so many identical computing devices distributed, I’d be surprised if people didn’t get good at repairing them very quickly.”
The developing world won’t really feel the impact of the OLPC’s massive distribution of low-cost computing devices until they’ve been in children’s hands for five to six years. At that point, the people leaving the school system for the working world will be used to having computers. They will likely demand them in their work lives, potentially transforming the economies of their countries. At least, that is the hope.
Unfortunately, says Zuckerman, there is another possibility: “If these students graduate into economies that are not ready to change, that don’t begin the transition to information societies, their exposure to computers will have given a whole generation of students the skills they need to get out of their countries. No country that will participate in this project will think that they are inviting their children to leave, but that indeed may happen.”
Will the $100 laptop change the world for the better? “That,” says Vota, “is the $30 billion question.” For better or for worse, the experiment is about to begin.
Ethan Zuckerman contributed research for this article.
To Probe Further
For links to project updates and blogs about the OLPC effort, see /apr07/sidelap.
For project updates from the One Laptop Per Child organization, see http://www.laptop.org; for detailed hardware specifications, see http://wiki.laptop.org/go/Hardware_specification. Wayan Vota reports regularly on project developments at http://www.olpcnews.com.
Several people interviewed for this article maintain blogs: Ethan Zuckerman, http://blog.ethanzuckerman.com, http://www.globalvoices.org, and http://www.worldchanging.com; Jamais Cascio, http://www.openthefuture.com; Lee Felsenstein, http://www.fonly.typepad.com.
Read more of Atanu Dey’s economic analyses of the project at http://www.deeshaa.org/on-the-olpc.