Will the $100 laptop help save the developing world?

The XO laptop was designed to be a lightweight and affordable laptop that is meant for developing countries. See more laptop pictures.
Image courtesy Mike McGregor

By now, you've probably heard of the "$100 laptop," a product five years in the making. The XO laptop, as it's officially called, is produced by the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded by Nicholas Negroponte, who also founded the MIT Media Lab. The OLPC Foundation aims to provide these laptops to millions of children throughout the developing world in order to improve their education and their quality of life. Let's take a look at the XO laptop to find why it's generating so much buzz.

The XO laptop was designed to be lightweight, cheap and adaptable to the conditions of the developing world. While a $100 laptop is the goal, as of September 2007, the laptop costs about $188. Originally the OLPC Foundation said that governments must buy the laptop in batches of 25,000 to distribute to their citizens, but a new program will soon allow private citizens to purchase an XO.

As of Nov. 12, 2007, the Give 1 Get 1 (G1G1) program allowed U.S. residents to pay $399 to buy two XO laptops -- one for the purchaser and one for a child in need in a foreign country. The program's initial run lasted two weeks. To start, laptops purchased through this program were given to children in Afghanistan, Haiti, Rwanda and Cambodia. More laptops should be available for sale in the future, and more developing nations will be able to apply to join the G1G1 plan.

As of September 2007, about 7,000 laptops were being tested by children around the world. Many governments have expressed interest in the laptop or verbally committed to buying it, but Negroponte said that some haven't followed through on their promises. Still, enough computers were ordered -- observers estimated more than three million -- that full-scale production began in July 2007.

The OLPC Foundation faces some challenges and criticism besides getting governments to commit to buying the XO. A common question is: Why give a child a laptop when he might need food, water, electricity or other basic amenities? To that, the OLPC says that the XO laptop offers children a sense of ownership and ensures that they're no longer dependent on a corrupt or inept government to provide educational opportunities. The computer is a powerful tool for learning and collaboration, exposing children to a wealth of knowledge and providing opportunities that they would not normally have. It also replaces the need for textbooks, which are expensive, easily damaged and less interactive.

In many parts of the developing world, people live in large family groupings. The XO laptop allows children, parents, grandparents and cousins to teach each other. In some communities with limited electricity, children have used the laptop's bright screen as a light.

The OLPC Foundation faces some competitors, even among nonprofit organizations. Also, Michael Dell and Bill Gates have questioned aspects of the computer's design. Other companies have launched competing low-cost laptops, though none with the scale or publicity of the OLPC Foundation project. Intel initially criticized the device, then started selling its own low-cost laptop, and finally decided to join the OLPC project.

Next, we'll take a look at the remarkable technology behind the XO.­

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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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Sources

  • "Factfile: XO laptop." BBC News. July 23, 2007. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/6679431.stm
  • "One Laptop per Child (OLPC)." http://laptop.org/
  • Fildes, Jonathan. "'$100 laptop' production begins." BBC News. July 22, 2007. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/6908946.stm
  • Fildes, Jonathan. "'$100 laptop' to sell to public." BBC News. Sept. 24, 2007. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/6994957.stm
  • Lohr, Steve. "The Larger Challenge (and Opportunity) for One Laptop Per Child." New York Times. Sept. 24, 2007. http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/09/24/the-larger-challenge-and-opportunity-for-one-laptop-per-child/
  • Dukker, Steven and Bender, Walter. "Will Low-Cost Laptops Help Kids in Developing Countries?" The Wall Street Journal. Sept. 5, 2007. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB118892795619917030.html