The One Laptop Per Child is intended to be a cheap but functional laptop suitable for children in developing countries. It’s a very nice little machine, and I was really impressed.
Q: Why do you think these laptops are so impressive?
A: Well, for starters, they look a bit more kid-friendly than your average laptop. They are brightly-coloured plastic, with little antennas that look like rabbit ears, and the keyboard is covered with a plastic membrane. They seem pretty robust, physically.
Q: So are they a cut-down version of a real laptop?
A: In size, absolutely. They are only half the size of a regular laptop. The keys are smaller than a normal keyboard, for instance. But in capability, the story is more even. The One Laptop Per Child, or OLPC to its friends, has some limitations compared with a business laptops and some features that a regular manufacturers would give its eye teeth for.
Q: What like?
A: A sunlight-readable display, for instance. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried working outside on a laptop on a sunny day, but its basically impossible. You just can’t see the screen; it hasn’t got enough brightness. The OLPC has an amazing screen that can work in colour indoors, or in monochrome extra brightly outdoors.
Q: These laptops are being made for Africa I suppose…
A: Exactly so, they are being made for places where the kids may not spend all their time indoors, and may not even have access to shade all the time. The OLPC does a lot of other stuff as well, such as having a hand-crank attachment so you can use it if you don’t have electric power, and this really clever mesh networking technology that lets OLPCs talk to other OLPCs nearby, and lets them share Internet connections.
Q: Ok, but surely we should be spending our aid budgets on putting food in their mouths, not laptops in their hands
A: Two things to say to that: firstly, the OLPC is aimed at people who, by and large, do have the basic necessities of life like food and water. There are many, many millions in that position who still lack any kind of education. Secondly, if the OLPC is successful at improving the prospects of a young generation in these communities, not only do their communities benefit, but the whole world does.
And these things are aimed at primary-age kids – have you seen kids that age when they first get their hands on a computer? There’s a lot of scope here.
Q: Are these laptops available yet?
A: they are just starting to be. The ones I was playing with were prototypes, but the first production models are starting to roll out. In the US, they are running a “buy one, give one” programme where you pay a total of about $400 US and get a laptop yourself, and another one gets sent where it will do the most good.
Q: You talked last week about a $600 laptop in New Zealand – isn’t that about the same price?
A: That’s the Eee, and yes it’s about the same price as two OLPCs at the moment. And it’s a great little laptop. Like the OLPC, the Eee runs open source – that’s part of getting the price down so low. But although the Eee is a fantastic machine, you don’t get the warm feeling you’d get from donating one to a child in a developing country. That said, the OLPC isn’t officially available in New Zealand yet, so if it’s a small laptop you are after rather than a way to give to a child, you are better off getting an Eee.
But watch this space, I think we will be seeing OLPCs in New Zealand and in our neighbouring countries very soon.
This is a project with huge potential to change the world. I think we’ll talk in a bit more detail about the One Laptop Per Child in the new year, but in the meantime, keep your eyes and ears open and they will start appearing, at least in the press.