$100 laptop targets the digital divide

Early in 2005 I helped found One Laptop per Child (OLPC) with Nicholas Negroponte, founder and chairman emeritus of the MIT media laboratory, and became the first OLPC employee.

Sep 1st, 2006
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By Mary Lou Jepsen

Early in 2005 I helped found One Laptop per Child (OLPC) with Nicholas Negroponte, founder and chairman emeritus of the MIT media laboratory, and became the first OLPC employee. The effort emerged as a way to capture the endless momentum of Moore’s Law and create a laptop for those far on the other side of the digital divide-the poor children of the world and their families. In fact, the vast majority of the world lives without so many of the things we consider essential, not least of which is access to information.

Just the other day I had a visitor at OLPC who was freshly back from a children’s computer lab in a favello-a slum-in Rio, Brazil. There, he was surprised to see a girl watching a video on a PC screen. He peaked around the corner to watch more closely and saw that the video was teaching her how to brush her teeth. No one in her family used toothbrushes; no one she knew did. She had Googled the topic and was learning.

The absence of information for basic hygiene is huge. The absence of information for education, for small businesses and farmers, to enable fair governments, and access to banking, for kids to grow up and get jobs working for the companies you in this audience represent . . . these information voids are enormous. There is so little opportunity in the emerging world. Laptops can easily enable tremendous opportunity.

The Chief Strategy Officer at Advanced Micro Devices (AMD; Sunnyvale, CA), Billy Edwards, describes the design of our $100 laptop as the first fundamental revisit of personal computer architecture since IBM (White Plains, NY) launched the PC in 1981. For the first time in 25 years, we are redesigning the whole architecture-hardware, software, display-and coming up with some remarkable inventions and innovations. We are not creating a cost-reduced version of today’s laptop; we are creating an entirely new approach to the idea of a laptop.

Here are some things we have in our laptop that you would want in yours:

  • Instant on
  • Flash memory instead of a moving hard disk
  • Display self-refresh (while CPU is asleep)
  • CPU fast-sleep and fast wake-up (about 0.1 seconds)
  • Massive mesh networking via Wi-Fi
  • Three to four times the range of typical laptop Wi-Fi antennae (up to about 1 Km)
  • At 2 W, one-tenth the power consumption of a typical laptop
  • Human-power input for battery recharge

  • Tolerance of multiple power-charging sources like car batteries
  • E-book mode, in a form factor a child can take to bed and curl up with for a good read.

Of course, many of our decisions had to take into account the tough environments in which the machines will be used-you can drop them, and they seal when closed to resist water and dust incursion. We’re working on making the design increasingly eco-friendly. We have also been developing a new battery chemistry that extends battery lifetime from today’s typical 500 charge/recharge cycles to 2000 charge/recharge cycles.

Our operating system (OS) requires about 100 Mbytes. By comparison, Windows Vista requires more than 100 times our footprint at 15 Gbytes. Which OS makes the better basis for agile computing? How long does it take to boot up an e-mail client? A web browser? A writing package? It used to be said that “Andy giveth and Bill taketh away,” meaning despite CPU advances by Andy Grove’s Intel (Santa Clara, CA), Bill Gates’ Microsoft (Redmond, WA) would effectively make sure you would spend the same amount of time to accomplish the same task. Well, with our laptop, AMD giveth and Red Hat giveth more. Our laptops will boot up in seconds with a feature-rich, collaborative wiki-plus environment to encourage democratic use of the Web by nontechnical users.

The display is a 7.5 in. diagonal with 1200 × 900 pixels, which is 200 dots per inch (dpi)-higher resolution than 95% of the laptops that ship today. The display offers sunlight-readable and room-light-readable modes in black and white. Then, when the backlight is turned on, the display becomes color with resolution of about 800 × 600 pixels, and in some of our designs we can achieve 1024 × 768-pixel color at very low power consumption. The cost of the display is $40 instead of the usual $130 for a regular laptop display that consumes about seven times the power of our display and is not sunlight readable.

Despite disbelief last year that the $100 laptop was even possible, individuals and corporations would attend our meetings. We all learned in every meeting. We persevered, and we have gotten the world to help. Corporate powerhouses are sponsoring this effort. So far, $40 million and in-kind support has come from: 3M (St. Paul, MN), AMD, Brightstar (Miami, FL), ChiMei (Taiwan, China), eBay (San Jose, CA), Google (Mountain View, CA), Marvell (Santa Clara, CA), News Corporation (New York, NY), Nortel (Brampton, Ontario, Canada), Quanta Computer (Taiwan, China), Underwriters Laboratories (Northbrook, IL), and the United Nations.

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The children of the world are going to go online with our machines. They are our future, our most valuable resource. This is real and it’s happening now. By all means, join us.

MARY LOU JEPSEN is chief technology officer at One Laptop per Child, 1 Cambridge Center, Cambridge, MA 02142; e-mail: mlj@laptop.org.

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