Hugi Magazine #33: MP3 Power

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One Laptop per Child - A possible new demo platform?? by CiH

Ok, try this one for size then. How about a new hardware platform that, if the manufacturers plans are realised, is going to be one of the cheapest and most widely spread and available worldwide, only second to the current dominant Microsoft paradigm. Maybe even overtaking that in time? Ladies and Demosceners, I give you, the One Laptop Per Child project!

The One Laptop Per Child Project might well be better known as the $100 laptop. The stunningly low selling point is intended to get it into areas of the world not normally rich in computing resources, what is generally known as the Third World in fact. The aim is to provide a cheap and easy educational resource to the average child in impoverished areas currently lacking these things.

So all very good and worthy, but apart from the fact that many demo parties do their best to resemble a Sudanese hell-hole at the height of the Janjawid raiding season, what has this do-goodery got to do with us? you ask.

Well one thing which might awaken demoscene interest, is the possibility of the backers of the One Laptop Per Child project looking at the possibility of selling the machine to the general public in the west, people like you and me. One suggestion being considered is for customers to have to buy two laptops at once (see end of article), with the second one going directly to a child in the developing world. Which would still be good value at $2-300, you get a cheap laptop, and the warm smug feeling of helping someone in poverty. What is there not to like about that?

Michalis Bletsas, chief connectivity officer for the project, said eBay could be a partner to sell the laptop. As things stand, this project is still in its early days. Initially, a first run of five million of the laptops will be delivered to developing nations this summer, in one of the most ambitious educational exercises ever undertaken. Any follow-up move to make the machines more widely available won't follow until 2008 at the earliest.

The next question you will want to ask, is the machine any good? What are those all-important tech specs like?

The proposed $100 machine will be Linux-based (a stripped down Fedora core), there will also be other tools and programming languages onboard as well), with a dual-mode display which has both a full-color, transmissive DVD mode, and a second display option that is black and white reflective and sunlight-readable at 3 times the resolution. (Wikipedia quotes 1200 x 900 pixels.) There is a built-in video camera capable of webcam type resolutions of 640 x 480 and a built-in microphone. The laptop will have a AMD 366MHz processor and 128MB of DRAM, with 500MB of Flash memory. It will not have a hard disk, but it will have four USB ports and an SD card slot. The laptops will have wireless broadband that, among other things, allows them to work as a mesh network; each laptop will be able to talk to its nearest neighbours, creating an ad hoc local area network. The laptops will use what were described as 'innovative' power systems and run at 2 watts (10-45 watts is normal for most other laptops) and will be able to do everything except store huge amounts of data.

So it won't be massively state of the art, or using Windows, but I suspect it might have quite a lot to offer those people willing to invest some time and effort in it. A 366MHz cpu does not sound like much, but it is still a lot more than is available to coders working with oldschool hardware. I also guess that the Linux they will be using will be optimised and efficient and not imposing a big system overhead. I guess that means it won't overheat either, so no more hot laps from hot laptops! It is possible to add more flash memory, other devices via the USB ports, as I guess one of the things that might put some people off is the relative lack of storage.

(From the press release)

How is it possible to get the cost so low?

(End of press release.)

The other mind-boggling possibility is the very 'open' peer-to-peer ad-hoc wireless network. A whole coding party of these machines could link together in their own intranet. If they do add a 'wind-up' option for powering the machine, a-la Trevor Bayliss's clockwork radio, then there is no restriction on where you can hold the party, even a tent in the countryside! All you then need is a wind-up projector for the big screen and a LOT of booze to keep the cold out, so perhaps not such a great idea there!

I would guess that someone will get hold of one of these, and make something 'demoscene' on it, regardless of whether the machine is made officially available here or not. There will be a black market reselling them, and a certain initial curiosity about the platform. I'm awaiting a proper full review of the thing myself. This would fall into the Pokemon Mini me beautiful spirit of making something happen on 'forbidden' hardware. However, if the machine is sold in the developed world (undermining a lot of the existing laptop market in the process?) Then a lot more people will try their skills out on it, and this machine could become one of the much loved icons of the demoscene over a longer time, like the C64.

Just maybe, in the longer term, we could be talking about such concepts as the Nigerian or Costa Rican demoscene?!

Here's some weblinks to keep an eye on:

To bring the article right up to date, here's a statement from OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte:

"Contrary to recent reports, One Laptop per Child is not planning a consumer version of its current XO laptop, designed for the poorest and most remote children in the world. XO will be made available to governments in very large quantities to be given to all children free, as part of the education system. Many commercial ventures have been considered and proposed that may surface in 2008 or beyond, one of which is 'buy 2 and get 1.' In addition, OLPC is launching OLPC Foundation later this month, specifically to accommodate the huge goodwill and charity that has surfaced around the idea of a $100 laptop."

Ah well, so it's not one for today, or even tomorrow, but maybe the day after that. Your own thoughts on the One Laptop per Child appreciated.

CiH, for Hugi Mag, Feb '07.