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How the OLPC got its colors
You’re beautiful. You’re beautiful. It’s true.
Nicholas Negroponte (Founder and Co-director of MIT’s Media Lab) delivered the 3rd keynote of the Bentley Leadership Forum this week.
“Why laptops” and “Don’t the poor need other things like food more than they get computers”?
The project was motivated by many things, among them the observation that the solutions to the world’s big problems (peace, environment, world poverty, etc.) tend to always have a component of education. They [the founders of the initiative] were most interested in primary education seeing it as a leverage point where they could have the greatest impact. They also wanted to focus on the remotest and poorest parts of the world.
Here is a quick and dirty paraphrase.
There are places in the world where if youâ€™re lucky, school is a tree, the teacher shows up, and that teacher is qualified. However, building more schools and training more teachers is only one part of the answer. There needed to be something else. That something is getting kids to take control of their own education.
Negroponte spoke about what he felt was a misconception in the development community. The primary reason that children stop going school in the 3rd and 4th grade is NOT because they need to go to the fields and help their families. “That’s rubbish”. He feels a big reason is that they are BORED stiff. Eyes glazed over, bored bored bored. And it doesn’t have to be that way.
He came to this conclusion after a pilot computer project in Cambodia in 1999 or so. His son was living in Italy, working on a business venture, having girlfriend problems. So NickNeg says “Dimitri, if you can suffer the indignity of working for your father”, I’ve got a project for you. He wanted his help in building, setting up and wiring a school in Cambodia. Nick sent the the laptops [some mighty fly Panasonic Toughbooks. Those computers can take a bullet btw (see photo).].
Elaine & Nicholas Negroponte School in Reaksmy, Cambodia
He quips that the first English words of the kids in the photo was Google. He also noted that after the computers showed up at the school, there was a 100% increase in attendance in the next school year [I might have this time frame wrong, but you get the point]. The lesson: Add something worth showing up for and kids will come.
Negroponte says he gets criticism all the time (9-10 unique stories per day) on “why, why why”. He says that if you substitute the word “education” for “laptop”, you’d never hear those questions again.
Now when conceiving of the computers, they noted [as every other tech aficionado does] that cost of electronics drops 15% or so every 18 months. So what do computer manufacturers do? They add more features and hope that you’ll buy a new machine at the same price as your old system. He says that your typical $1000 laptop is a case of electronic obesity. It is like an SUV where much of the gas is used just to move the weight of the machine around. Continuing with this analogy, he says, “Why not go back to a light vehicle?” Maybe even a sports car.
That’s what the XO-1 is. A very very cute sports car.
Here are the specs:
- 700 Mhz AMD x86 processor (They went to Intel first, but they dropped the ball by not responding fast enough. AMD ended up with the contract.)
- 256 M Ram
- 1G flash memory provides instant on and very long battery life. Your typical hard drive sucks a lot of power.
- 3 USB Ports
- Inbuilt Video
- Wifi mesh network
- Rugged (you can drop it from a 1.5 m and it should be fine. Drop tests from most computers are done from 35cm.)
- Stereo sound with 2 audio out
- Dual mode display for indoor and outdoor viewing (sunlight readable)
- Highest resolution in dots per inch than any laptop they know
- Extreme low power: 2W Nominal. (A well-nourished person can generate 15-20W with the “pencil-yellow hand crank”; malnourished bits can do around 10. They’ve got it so you can get 10 minutes of use out of 1 minute of cranking.)
- Adjustable ear antennae give it 2-3x range for picking up wifi. Often he’s at a meeting, he says, and he’s the only person who can get a signal.
- Sugar user interface
- Wide range of alternative power inputs
- “Greenest laptop by factor of ten” (1/2 size, 1/2 weight, 1/3 part count, RoHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive) compliant, no Hg, Cd, Pb, etc.)
- Fedora Linux, Window XP ready (that’s convenient. Microsoft just announced that they’d be selling versions of the Windows OS for $3 in select developing countries.)
Other benefits: no bloatware (that heinous stuff that you never want that ships on your brand new laptop and takes up space/processor power), no capslock (this is just plain random), peer to peer everything (woohoo!)
He assures us that you can’t steal this laptop. Here is a quote from a Jim Gettys (Veep of Software Engineering for the project) interview with Computerworld regarding this issue:
To begin with, these are kid’s laptops, and obviously so when you see one; if it is in the hands of someone else, questions can be asked. Secondly, the incentive to steal is reduced greatly by our policy of “One Laptop per Child”: areas where the laptop goes are to be saturated with machines, so every child has one. Not only does this reduce the incentive to steal machines, but it is also necessary for a mesh network to work efficiently. Third, a stolen machine has a MAC address and can be potentially backtracked to its point of origin. And by making it the child’s machine, not only is it valued more than communal property at a school, it is also something families will value both for educational and other uses. Finally, we are looking at some technological aids against theft, primarily to increase the chance of detecting stolen systems.
[The machines may also have a kill switch, where they will just stop working if stolen. With all the problems that Windows Genuine Advantage has had with such kill switches, I am wary.]
Q & A
Q: Why green and white?
One of the first meetings Negroponte has with a head of state to talk about the project was with Olusegun Obasanjo, President of Nigeria. When he came into the meeting Obasango wasn’t it the room yet. It was just him, with the entire cabinet seated on the other side of the table. The Prez comes in and says “Professor Negroponte, I have one word for your project, one word.” Pregnant pause, lots of suspense. “Enchanting”. Long story short, the first XO-1 would be made for Nigeria. The colors are those of the Nigerian flag.
From Wikipedia (accessed 4/28/07)”
OLPC is funded by a number of sponsor organizations, including AMD, Brightstar Corporation, eBay, Google, Marvell, News Corporation, SES Global, Nortel Networks, and Red Hat. Each company has donated two million dollars.
He reckons it will take between $300-$900m to launch. Central governments are putting in single big orders. Uruguay, Nigeria, Pakistan, Argentina, Brazil, Thailand, and Libya have expressed interest in buying the machines.
Q: What degree of control do they have over how the governments will distribute the laptops?
The deal is 1 laptop per child. They will be doing monitoring and lots of shaming. [It is very interesting how shaming actually can have an impact on the international scale]. Pakistan has made a point that it wants to emphasize girls. In this country, the rollout will be done by the army in cooperation with British Telecom. The army is letting them use their helicopters. It would be very very hard and expensive to pull off getting the computers to some of the more isolated areas with their help. [Hunh, makes sense, but what is the army’s rep with the people?]
Q: Packaging? Originals were packaged in styrofoam (boo hiss).
No Styrofoam. That packaging was probably only for the betas. The computers will be shipped in pallets.
Q: AMD chip, eh? Why wasnâ€™t Intel involved?
They went to Intel first. After 3 mos of whining (his words not mine) they decided not to do it. The OLPC team needed an answer by Dec 2005. They didnâ€™t get to him in time. So then he went to Hector Ruiz and had an answer in 3 hours (give or take).
If you steal one before it’s been registered, you can’t turn it one. When they get shipped out, the laptops will arrive with a teacher who will help with getting the machines connected and will training folks. Now if you steal the machine from that child once the laptop has been activated, after 48 hours it won’t work anymore. It need to be seen on the mesh network with all the other kids.
[cough, gasp… sounds like recipe for disaster… choke, sputter.]
Q. Languages and Keyboards?
9 language and six alphabets. They will be doing lots of language localization.
Q. Blocking and censorship?
A blocked internet better than no internet. Though many would disagree, if you censor democracy from Google searches, itâ€™s still better to have Google. Basically they decided not to fight that battle. Also, noted that if people really want to get a site they will. [Hurray for proxy servers and sites like anonymouse]
Q. Why not be a commercial venture and sell some of these bad boys stateside?
They are a non-profit which gives them clarity of purpose. Also if they were to be a public company, they would have fiduciary responsibilities to their shareholders and would have to behave very differently. They are not against somebody else doing that (Quanta is thinking about it.) One scheme [which the OLPC people aren’t totally on board with yet. Fingers crossed] is too allow a person in a developed country buy 1 XO-1 for $300. They get one and the other goes to a kid in a developing coutry. [The fact that he mentioned it does suggest that they are still considering it the idea, even if they haven’t committed.)
Q. What were the tipping points i.e. if x didnâ€™t work, the tent would have fallen?
If the display didnâ€™t work (cto is a lady. alright). Funny anecdote, when they first presented the machine at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2005, the machine wasn’t totally functional yet. They presented the thing, Wizard of Oz style, with another computer under the desk. Still is made a big splash.
Q. Doing it in the us?
Werenâ€™t looking at doing this in the U.S. previously, but are now. Because of the way the school systems are set up in the U.S. (33,000 school districts), it would be very heard. Not wanted to be left out after clearly missing the boat in 2005, Intel is working on their Classmate machine for the developed country market. Initial pricing $250-$400.
Intel’s Classmate and OLPC’s XO-1 in Santiago Chile
Photo by Flickr user luisramirezuchile
The key is that you cannot equivocate at all on that issue. Just say no way! As it is for kids though, it is an easier sell than say F-14’s.
Get your very own XO-1 laptop, give one to a child in need
Bentley Leadership Forum Part I: Keynote by Jeff Sachs