The $100 laptop — update

Jim Gettys, VP of Software for the One Laptop Per Child project was in Cambridge today and gave an impromptu seminar at the Computer Lab. It was a fascinating insight into the amount of hard work and ingenuity that has gone into the design of this elegant little gizmo:

Jim had three of the laptops in his bag and left them out for us to examine.

I took notes as he talked and may blog a full account later. But, looking back, the headlines are:

  • Wireless networking is central to the project, and it does mesh networking in a really neat way. My Airport card picked up the mesh immediately, and it was interesting to see the neat way the OLPC interface represents other wireless nets.
  • They’ve done a lot of hard thinking about power consumption and have come up with some very neat tricks for paring down consumption. The CPU is off much of the time, for example.
  • The display (a custom-built 7.5″ 200 dpi TFT ultra-low power consumption screen) is readable in bright sunlight. Jim had a nice slide of the laptop alongside a traditional HP laptop in blazing sunshine. Guess which screen is an unreadable black?
  • The laptop has a built-in camera — rather like the iSight built in to Intel Macs. Kids love this, apparently.
  • There are plans to sell OEM versions of the laptop in developed countries — but for considerably more than $100.
  • Conventional file systems are pretty baffling to a young kid who doesn’t know how to read yet. So the OLPC has, as its central idea, the concept of a time-ordered journal. (This also helps with decisions about what to throw away: you’re less tempted to keep old stuff).
  • The OLPC Chat protocol is “loosely based” on Jabber.
  • Open source software is a key and integral part of the project.
  • Making the machines look very much like a kids’ toy is part of the anti-theft strategy. (Any adult with one who isn’t a teacher will be suspect.) Also it helps that it doesn’t run Windows (makes it less desirable to thieves).
  • The project is running into ‘political’ difficulties in certain targeted countries. These difficulties are partly caused by certain Western companies — but, interestingly, not Microsoft. Now I wonder which large chip manufacturer might be involved?
  • After Jim had finished, he was mobbed by a few people. The students went straight for the laptops, though!

    All in all, it was a terrific event. Thanks to Jon Crowcroft for organising it.

    Postscript: The “bunny ears” on the laptop are in fact WiFi antennae!