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Will the $100 laptop help save the developing world?


XO Laptop Technology and Cost
As seen here, the XO laptop's screen can be twisted and laid flat, transforming the laptop into an e-book.
As seen here, the XO laptop's screen can be twisted and laid flat, transforming the laptop into an e-book.
Image courtesy Mike McGregor

The XO laptop's design emphasizes cheap, durable construction that can survive a variety of climates and the rigors of the developing world. The machine can withstand dirt, scratches, impact and water while also providing long battery life. Every feature is carefully engineered to conform to these standards and to minimize the need for maintenance. To that end, the XO laptop has no moving parts -- no hard drive with spinning platters, no cooling fans, no optical drive.

Unlike most commercially available laptops, the XO's display is readable in full sunlight. Users can switch between color and black-and-white viewing modes to save energy. The screen "swivels" around, making the computer into a tablet or e-book.

The 433 Mhz AMD processor and 256 megabytes of SDRAM are unimpressive by today's standards, but the XO has ample speed to run its lightweight, no-frills software. The XO's processor is designed to be energy efficient, and several devices are available to recharge the battery, including an electrical adapter, hand crank, foot-pedal and solar-powered charger.

Rather than a traditional hard drive, the XO has a 1 gigabyte flash drive, similar to what's used in USB thumb drives, the iPod nano and digital camera memory. Google will provide online storage services, and some communities or schools will have servers with large amounts of hard drive space. The computer also has an SD memory slot to add more storage.

Like most new computers, the XO has an integrated WiFi card. But it does have something most computers don't have. The XO's green "rabbit ear" antennae boost the wireless card's range up to 1.2 miles [source: BBC News]. The computer isn't dependent on a router being nearby either. Instead, XO laptops can form a mesh network; any computers within WiFi range can connect to one another and share Internet access through a computer that's within range of a wireless connection. Think of it like a line of people, with each person touching the shoulder in front of him. The person in front may be the only one closest enough to a router to access the Internet, but that Internet access can filter throughout the mesh network.

The XO's durable, waterproof plastic shell has an integrated video camera, microphone, three USB ports and speakers. Its keyboard can be adapted for different countries and alphabets.

The Red Hat software company supplies a version of the popular open-source Linux operating system. Other software includes a Web browser (Mozilla Firefox), a word processor compatible with Microsoft Word, a PDF reader, a music program, games and a drawing program.

Whether the XO laptop changes education and community life in developing countries remains to be seen. World leaders such as Kofi Annan have praised the device. The XO has the potential to be an incredibly useful and empowering educational tool, changing how children and communities learn, interact and relate to one another. But it will take years to gauge the project's success. If nothing else, elements of the XO's award-winning design will surely find their way into commercial laptops. And since the OLPC project's inception, the passion and ingenuity of Negroponte and his team have reinvigorated the discussion about how to best serve the developing world and to bridge the digital divide.

To learn more about the XO laptop and other related topics, or to donate to the OLPC Foundation, please check out the links on the next page.


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