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LinuxWorld keynote: One Laptop Per Child

By Nathan Willis on April 05, 2006 (8:00:00 AM)

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Nicholas Negroponte, MIT professor and founder of One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), delivered the keynote address at the Boston LinuxWorld Conference and Expo yesterday. One Laptop Per Child is the non-profit association behind what is commonly called "the $100 laptop" -- an initiative to deliver portable computers and mesh networking to schoolchildren in developing countries.

The OLPC initiative aims to fight poverty in developing nations by jumpstarting children's education. Providing computers to schools and children not only equips them for traditional curriculum, Negroponte says, but it empowers them in ways non-computer learning cannot -- connecting them with programming and computer science enables them to "think about thinking," as he puts it. He cites examples from both United States and overseas programs over the last 20 years where computers for schoolchildren have achieved amazing results, on a small scale that OLPC will dwarf.

Negroponte began by responding to recent criticisms of the project, including public comments by Bill Gates that the specifications of the laptops (which are still under development) are underpowered. Slim and trim does not mean the same thing as weak, Negroponte remarked, observing that the 500MHz processors planned for the devices were top-of-the-line just five years ago. Furthermore, he added, every increase in processing power seems to be met with an equal or greater increase in system requirements from Microsoft.

Red Hat is a partner in the program, providing an operating system at well below Microsoft's price, but Negroponte says that only 25% of the price for a typical new laptop goes to the OS vendor. A much larger chunk -- closer to 50% -- is consumed by sales and marketing overhead, distribution costs, and corporate profit.

OLPC, by contrast, has zero marketing overhead and very low distribution costs; it has single-order deals directly with the central governments of the seven nations included in the first phase of its rollout -- China, India, Thailand, Egypt, Nigeria, Brazil, and Argentina.

 Nicholas Negroponte keynote address
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The biggest remaining cost factor is a laptop is the display, a component that OLPC deems critical. The display need not meet the high-end specs of most consumer and business models. The OLPC laptops' display is seven-inch, dual-mode (transmissive in backlight mode, but reflective in sunlight like "e-ink" products) 4x3 aspect ratio screen that can operate in color at 640x480 or in black and white at 1110x830.

Despite its unique features, Negroponte insists that the enormous scale of the OLPC project allows the organization to purchase displays cheaply. He noted anecdotally that when he brought the requirements to one manufacturer, their people declined to bid, claiming that it did not match their "strategic plans" -- but they were willing to alter their strategic plan when the 100-million-unit order size entered the conversation.

Phase one of the rollout is scheduled for the first quarter of 2007, at which point OLPC expects the laptops to cost approximately $135 each. As hardware prices trend downward, however, the cost will drop -- Negroponte estimates that the laptops will cost $50 each by 2010.

Negroponte spent the last 20 minutes of his time taking questions from the audience. In response to one, he elaborated on the networking capabilities of the machines. Since the program will be implemented in conjunction with pubic schools, each school will receive a low-cost server and (where necessary) a satellite Internet backbone connection. Each laptop will be equipped with wireless mesh networking hardware to extend the range of the school's server, and the networking hardware will continue to run even when the laptops are switched off, so that they may act as routers for other participants.

Finally, Negroponte answered two questions from audience members interested in how to get involved in the project or something similar to it for their own community. Although the first phase of the project rollout will consist of OLPC dealing directly with national governments, he said, a second phase will allow individuals to subsidize laptops -- perhaps purchasing one for $300 that would then sponsor two or more in developing countries. As for getting involved in a laptop program for schoolchildren today, Negroponte's answer was simple: try eBay. "You can go buy a really good laptop for $300 or less today. You don't have to wait."

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alas, he also made one really dumb comment

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on April 05, 2006 09:50 PM
BOSTON--The One Laptop Per Child organization will use Linux on its inexpensive machines, but the operating system suffers the same code bloat as Windows, the project's leader said Tuesday.
"People aren't thinking about small, fast, thin systems," said Nicholas Negroponte, chairman of the One Laptop Per Child nonprofit association, in a speech at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo here. "Suddenly it's like a very fat person (who) uses most of the energy to move the fat. And Linux is no exception. Linux has gotten fat, too."
<a href="http://news.com.com/Negroponte+Slimmer+Linux+needed+for+100+laptop/2100-7346_3-6057456.html" title="com.com">http://news.com.com/Negroponte+Slimmer+Linux+need<nobr>e<wbr></nobr> d+for+100+laptop/2100-7346_3-6057456.html</a com.com>

That's an amazingly dumb statement. Here are the specs which is laptops are planned to have:

The system will use a 500MHz processor from Advanced Micro Devices with 128MB of memory. It will use 512MB of flash memory and no hard drive, he said. The biggest remaining cost is the display. The system will use a dual-mode display with a black-and-white, 1110-by-830-pixel mode in sunlight and a 640-by-480-pixel color mode otherwise.

So, light video on a 500/128 machine is not capable of handling GNU/Linux?!

What is he talking about?

I run Debian Sarge on a 300MHz/128MB (yes, that's *three hundered*) with KDE and OpenOffice 2.0 and its no lightening fast, but its very decent.

My guess is that he thinks of SuSE or Red Hat or Mandriva or some other RPMed distro, or that he has simply no idea how good a non-commercial distro like Debian can get.

He even can get lightening speed on his 500/128 machines. He needs to install Debian with no bells n whistles, recompline the kernel to get rid of all the useless "can do everything" stuff, make sure that no useless services are running use FluxBox as a desktop and use a slimmed down version of OpenOffice (or another office suite).

Heck - he can even offer to multi-boot Damn Small Linux (DSL) for hyper-drive speed.

But first, he needs to get his facts straight before making that kind of statements [not to mention that he confuses the kernel and the OS]

Good luck to him and his fantastic project!

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Re:alas, he also made one really dumb comment

Posted by: massysett on April 05, 2006 10:01 PM
Ha, OpenOffice is slow on my Pentium 4.

I see Negroponte's point. Most Linux installations are fat. But you can take any distro and install slimmed-down apps and it'll run fine on the hardware he's proposing. That's what DSL is all about.

Negroponte realizes this--after all Red Hat will be supplying the OS.

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speed &amp; diminishing marginal returns

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on April 05, 2006 10:11 PM
Ha, OpenOffice is slow on my Pentium 4

Couple of explanations:

1) you are using OpenOffice v 1+ and you did not know that some font reading file needs to be erased.

2)there is something wrong with your system

3) your criteria of slow and fast are more the criteria of a spoiled brat who thinks that loading OO in 3 sec is ok and in 10 sec is horrible

My guess is # 3<nobr> <wbr></nobr>;-)

Now consider whom these laptops are supposed to cater to and you will see that the prospective user would not mind waiting even 30 sec for an application to load.

Keep in mind that speed is the one thing on computers in which the law of diminishing marginal returns kicks in the fastest!

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Re:speed &amp; diminishing marginal returns

Posted by: Joseph Cooper on April 06, 2006 11:13 AM
Try 50, and swapping whenever you do something. But Microsoft Word doesn't have that problem, does it?

I'm sorry but don't call people "spoiled brats" for not using shit software. I'm pretty sure the reason a lot of us dumped Windows is so we don't have to deal with shit software. I didn't switch to Linux so I could load a simple word processor in a full fucking minute on a computer thats roughly 150x faster than what's actually NEEDED to run a simple word processor.

OpenOffice is not usable on my 700mhz system with 256megs of ram. I know you say it runs "fast" on your 128meg system, but I get the feeling you're just ignoring the chugga-chugga-chugga *blows smoke* (add more coal!) swapping.

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Base ball bat.

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on April 07, 2006 03:48 PM
Open Office should be turning over on 700 with 256.

Cause you are running gnome or kde with too many options on.

233 pent with 196 megs of ram can turn over open office 2 Ok slow start time. Once started fine.

Ie XFCE fix its menu system and you have what you need. It only eats 4 meg of ram comparted to at least 80 with gnome on lite. Gnome on heavy can take 200 meg alone. Lack of ram lack of speed.

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Re:speed &amp; diminishing marginal returns

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on April 07, 2006 09:16 PM
OpenOffice is not usable on my 700mhz system with 256megs of ram. I know you say it runs "fast" on your 128meg system, but I get the feeling you're just ignoring the chugga-chugga-chugga *blows smoke* (add more coal!) swapping.

Your feeling is wrong and are probably only caused by being a spoiled brat. OO does run just fine on my 300/128 system thank you, and no chugga-chugga or smoke. But then - I run Debian<nobr> <wbr></nobr>:-))

What do you have for an OS? OSX?

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quite the opposite in fact

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on April 05, 2006 10:14 PM
Negroponte realizes this--after all Red Hat will be supplying the OS

If Negroponte fully realized this he would *not* have RH supplying his OS.

But hey - at least it is not Mepis or, even worse, OSX<nobr> <wbr></nobr>...

He should also carefully think about FreeBSD as an alternative

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Why not get Bill Gates to help?

Posted by: OwlWhacker on April 05, 2006 10:46 PM
Bill Gates is well known to give away millions of dollars to developing countries. India and Africa have both had great benefits from him recently.

Why doesn't Bill donate to this project, ensuring that people can get the devices cheaper?

So, Bill. Here's a call to you: Think about donating from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation to help overcome poverty!

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Because he won't.

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on April 19, 2006 03:55 AM
Melinda (all hail Saint Melinda!) Gates may have persuaded her husband to become a public benefactor, but she isn't going to persuade him to undercut his own company's sales in the developing world.

Think about it for ten seconds. There are so many things he can give money for (clean water? eradication of the guinea worm? Schistosomiasis? Malaria?) there's no need for him to fund something that might possibly conflict with Microsoft's future profits.

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Re:Why not get Bill Gates to help?

Posted by: Jeremy Hogan on April 25, 2006 08:21 AM
Because Bill Gates gave $100M to fight AIDS in India, while his company was spending $400M there to promote M$.

His evil to good ratio is at best 4 to 1.

Now if you convinced him that the computers wouldn't boot until a Windows license was purchased, he'd be in.

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