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Little laptop; big results

Its makers hope to seed the developing world with the XO, once known as the “$100 laptop.”

Associated Press

Its makers hope to seed the developing world with the XO, once known as the “$100 laptop.”

To an American or European, the green-and-white plastic box is not a laptop computer as they know it.

But developers of the XO child-sized computer don't care. They aren't making it to compete with Dells, Macs and the like. The XO is not really about computing at all. It's about information and getting it to kids in the developing world in ways they can use it.

In fact, just as cell phones have changed the developing world in ways not anticipated by Western experts, the XO could make the world a different place for children who have no notion of what a laptop could or should do.

"It is very sneaky in a very beautiful way," said Robin Miller, a.k.a. Roblimo, editor in chief for SourceForge, a clearing house for open-source software. "We may not recognize it as a revolution."

The XO is the child-sized computing product of the MIT Media Lab. Once known as the "$100 laptop," it is the child of Nicholas Negroponte and the nonprofit One Laptop Per Child project, or OLPC, that aims to seed the developing world with these tiny learning tools.

Since the XO's debut last year, most reviews in technology circles have been negative, but proponents say those critiques miss the point. Its wider impact may come later, in roundabout ways, according to Miller and others.

"There are 5.5-billion people in the developing world. They are the mainstream," writes Mary Lou Jepsen, until recently the chief technology officer for OLPC. "It's time they had IT products and I'm thrilled to see the industry waking up to it."

The XO has its imitators, but its ground-up rethinking of a computer for developing-country needs created something hard to match. The machine has no delicate hard drive, only solid-state memory, so it is better suited to a rugged environment. It runs on Linux — not Windows — with a slim set of software that doesn't require huge amounts of memory.

Jepsen says the XO is the greenest laptop ever made, sipping electricity at a fraction the rate of regular laptops. It also has a specially designed battery that is cheaper and longer-lasting and can even be charged with a hand crank.

The machine unfolds by releasing two earlike antennae that give its wireless networking extra range. Its screen flips and folds so it becomes a tablet for reading. And the display is a patented design that, unlike conventional machines, shows sharp and clear even in bright sunlight.

There are other features that appeal to the geek or the designer, but its networking is extraordinary. In addition to a WiFi connection for the Internet, XOs all connect to one another through a mesh that doesn't require an online link: Multiple machines in a village can share work or chat or collaborate wirelessly from house to house.

"It's true peer to peer," Miller said. "You can share (an Internet) connection but you can also talk to each other without having to go through the government or a central computer somewhere."

In developing countries where power and communications are at a premium, a device like the XO can not only enable advanced education in schools but also independent communication within a community. A lack of infrastructure that would drive a Westerner mad might be an asset.

"You know how Asia leapfrogged everyone in cell phone use because they weren't burdened with a landline infrastructure?" Jepsen asked in a Web interview. "We were all jealous in the U.S. Well, just wait until you see what Africa and the Least Developed Countries do with Mesh … maybe we will all want to move there."

Still, critics have harped on the XO's bugs, its unusual configuration and its dissimilarity to standard Wintel machines so many people use, or that it doesn't use the fastest processor or have the most memory. But that really doesn't matter. Others have also denounced OLPC for making a gadget when people in the developing world need food and medicine.

"It is true, some people need food, but they need a whole range of other things as well, like education and health care and even computers," said Dennis Whittle, chairman and CEO of GlobalGiving.org, an online marketplace for private aid to developing countries.

Whittle had worked with the World Bank, the international community's chief antipoverty organization, before starting GlobalGiving. He said the history of international development shows the flaws in the idea that the poor need only the basics and nothing more until their nations progress.

People don't need a laptop the way an American would want one, he said, but they do need the information a laptop can bring, sort, manipulate and share. That information and computing power could allow those in developing countries to control their own development and destiny, not wait for the West to share its surpluses.

"It's essential not to have a top-down approach," Whittle said. "It's important for people to select what they need. We need to enable a person to choose, help them find the wherewithal, a source of income through access to information, communications, employment."

With the XO aimed at children and schools, Whittle said, it can kick-start development by helping kids reach higher faster than previous generations could hope to do. The open nature of the machine also moves that mission forward, said Miller.

"This gives kids absolute insight," Miller said of the open-source operating system and programs. Users can see the code behind the XO software and even tinker with it. "The smart kid is going to learn not only how to use it but how to program. You can't do that with Microsoft or any proprietary software."

Having millions of machines scattered around the developing world creates the opportunity for millions of new programmers who might otherwise have looked forward to bare subsistence instead. Though its price is now more like $200, the XO's cost is still the same as a few books and yet it can store hundreds more and can leverage intellectual resources into industries not yet imagined.

The West has been surprised before when other technologies were put to creative uses in developing countries. Cell phones have allowed fishermen and farmers to earn more money by consulting market prices, rather than taking the one offered at the nearest dock or town. Developing countries have found cell phones such an economic engine that there are now more such phones in poor countries than in rich ones.

Likewise, Internet cafes crowd out shops in Africa and Asia, with burgeoning opportunities for those who can fix a monitor or debug a program. They eagerly run old machines cast off by the West as useless. Though Internet access is not as universal as in the West, and critics say it never will be, those criticisms were offered about cell phones before they spread like a virus.

Businesses in the rich world had been slow to see the opportunity in developing countries, preferring to get Americans and Europeans to buy new gadgets before their old ones are spent. But the interest of Intel, Microsoft and others in OLPC shows an inkling of understanding that small margins from billions of customers equals huge profits.

"The market will move by itself, but it will move incrementally," Whittle said. "It may require an external shock, like the X Prize or rural electrification or the moonshot. If the XO can provide a focus, we can achieve dramatic change."

"There is this growing subculture of genius," Miller said. "People are very smart. Little kids are very smart. They learn real fast. It's a revelation for the vast majority of the developed world."

Little laptop; big results 07/26/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 30, 2008 1:31pm]

    

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