Red Hat commits to MIT's US$100 laptop

Fedora Core, a popular flavor of Linux being developed by the open-source community, is hardly hefty by Tuesday's operating system standards. But to fit the tight specs for the US$100 laptop being designed by MIT's One-Lap-Per-Child (OLPC) group, Fedora will need to go on a crash diet, concedes its overseer, Red Hat.

The N.C.-based Linux software maker confirmed Tuesday that it has donated US$2 million to the OLPC and joined as a corporate member and said it plans to put some of its brightest engineers to the task of slimming down Fedora before the laptops debut in early 2007.

Red Hat also hopes to recruit open-source software developers, who have led much of the development of Fedora Core since late 2003, when the company split it from its business-minded alternative, Red Hat Enterprise Linux.

"I have never seen a project that generated so much worldwide interest," said Mike Evans, Red Hat's vice-president of corporate development, referring to the OLPC. "We are starting to see the same thing from the open-source community."

A typical installation of Fedora on a desktop PC takes up 2.3GB of disk space. (Windows XP, in contrast, uses 3GB to 10GB of space.) Even the most Spartan installation of Fedora for a regular PC takes up 620MB, according to the Fedora Core Web site.

But the problem isn't so much recoding Fedora so it's a "hacked-up, skinny" Linux -- even though that wouldn't be difficult to do, said Evans; the problem is making sure that it's optimized for the laptop's nonstandard, almost whimsical specifications. To keep costs down and make it more durable, the laptop will eschew a hard drive in favor of 1GB of flash memory, on which the operating system, other software and all local data must be stored.

The laptop is also likely to sport a low-power 500-MHz processor, 128MB of DRAM, a wireless broadband chip, a two-mode display that will alternate between a color mode suitable for watching DVDs and a black-and-white reflective one that will boost resolution three times and be viewable under sunlight. Finally, the laptop will be powered by a battery and a wind-up electrical generator -- an effort to overcome the primitive infrastructure of the developing nations in which the laptops are expected to be used.

Red Hat is building an emulator of the laptop to distribute to developers in lieu of actual prototypes. The project itself will be managed as a typical open-source software development project by Red Hat and the official maintainers of the Linux OS kernel, Kernel.org, Evans said. "There are challenges in nailing down the technology, but this is not-atom-splitting stuff," he said.

Red Hat joins five other corporate members of the nonprofit OLPC, including Advanced Micro Devices, which will supply processors, and Nortel Networks, which will supply wireless technology, as well as three companies whose roles are less well defined: Google, media conglomerate News and BrightStar, a Miami-based cell phone distributor with international experience.

The OLPC has raised US$20 million and is close to a final commitment of US$700 million from seven nations -- Thailand, Egypt, Nigeria, India, China, Brazil and Argentina -- to buy 7 million laptops, Nicholas Negroponte, the OLPC's co-founder, said Monday in The New York Times.

In that Times article, Microsoft questioned the viability of the US$100 laptop, which will be made by Taiwan's Quanta Computer, one of the largest OEM notebook makers in the world. Microsoft, which talked with the OLPC about supplying Windows for the project, has demonstrated a specially configured cell phone connected to a TV and a keyboard that it says is a better alternative.

"If our effort stimulates others to bring low-cost devices, it's positive as well," Evans said. But "there [is] a fine line" between well-intentioned projects and those with "more protectionist" intentions, he added.

Even so, Red Hat hopes to see an economic upside from its involvement. Because of the laptop's limited storage, the OLPC hopes that schools and educational ministries in the seven nations will build wireless networks and Web servers to deliver textbook material, school lessons and software through the Internet. For the servers hosting that content, Red Hat hopes to convince the relevant institutions to choose its commercially supported versions of Linux, said Evans.

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Eric Lai

Computerworld
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