Building the $US100 laptop

Project leaders hope to hit the $US100 target in 2008

When plans to build and distribute a $US100 (£50) laptop to schoolchildren in emerging economies were first announced two years ago, the people behind the scheme had their fair share of critics.

PC prices in western economies were believed to have hit rock bottom at around £400, yet here was an organization hoping to shave off another £350. On top of this, they promised to use traditionally expensive components, such as flat-panel displays and purpose-built hardware -- including a power-generating hand crank -- that looked ambitious, to say the least. It had never been done before and many believed it was mission impossible.

Two years down the line, the sceptics may be forced to eat humble pie. The OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) initiative is just months away from delivering the first units, with governments including those of Uruguay, Nigeria and Rwanda among those pledging to acquire millions of systems to distribute to children.

No cutting corners

After designing several prototypes, OLPC has whittled down the cost and hopes to deliver laptops for about $US130 (£67) later this year, reaching the target of $US100 in 2008.

But OLPC has opted against making sacrifices with quick-fix components for a limited, entry-level laptop. The designers wanted users to be able to surf the web, interact with friends and benefit from the computing advances that children in developed economies take for granted.

One of the most important choices was to use Linux as the OS (operating system), but this was not simply a question of cost-cutting. Microsoft and Apple offered versions of their OSes, but OLPC developers believed Linux would provide children with a better experience. The decision to use open-source software was down to OLPC's desire to give children a greater opportunity to explore and create on their own, while the ability to produce a purpose-built interface -- now known as 'Sugar' -- enabled the initiative to build the platform from the ground up.

The icon-based interface presents various 'views'. These include: a home view, where children will be able to access various apps; a friends view, allowing them to see which people they know are on the network; and a neighbourhood view, showing everyone connected to the network and the activities they're engaged in. Surrounding these views is a frame equivalent to the menu bar in more traditional user interfaces. The child can click on people, places and other tools around the right, left and top sides of the frame, while the bottom is reserved for access to activities. Plus a context-sensitive search bar allows a child to easily locate items on the desktop.

But while the user experience sounds straightforward enough, putting together the system has been anything but. In fact, it's astonishing that the project has progressed from the pipe dream of MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) professor Nicholas Negroponte into a reality.

To find out exactly how it was done and to learn more about the challenges OLPC faces, we spoke to one of the key figures behind the scheme. Jim Gettys has been a software pioneer on open-source systems for more than 20 years, from his role as a primary developer of the X Window System at MIT in 1984 (which forms the basis of Linux and Unix graphical interfaces) through to editing the W3C's (World Wide Web Consortium's) HTTP/1.1 protocol. He now finds himself as OLPC's vice-president of software.

In this interview, Gettys describes the technical breakthroughs that will make the $US100 laptop a reality, and answers the question on the lips of every western PC enthusiast: when will we be able to buy one?

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