Issue #14 December 2005

Making One Laptop per Child a reality

The vision

Lap top prototype

When Nicholas Negroponte, the chairman and co-founder of MIT's Media Laboratory, dreams, he dreams really big. And he dreams in red. As in Red Hat. The One Laptop per Child (OLPC) project is Negroponte's big dream, and Red Hat is helping the dream inch closer to reality every day.

So what is the OLPC project? It is a program to enable all children, everywhere, to have the best education possible. Creating and distributing inexpensive laptops will allow students to become more active and creative, letting them take their learning beyond the walls of their schools and off the pages of textbooks and writing tablets. These $100 laptops will serve as libraries, music studios, art galleries and communications devices, using an open-source software platform that the students can customize and expand as their learning needs and programming skills grow. These machines will permit students to move beyond static, information-centric views of computing and learning by providing a vehicle for experimentation and collaboration.

Negroponte has created a consortium of companies around the idea that every child should have a laptop. According to the Media Lab website, "The $100 laptop is being developed by One Laptop per Child (OLPC), an independent, non-profit association created to design, manufacture, and distribute laptops that are sufficiently inexpensive to provide every child in the world access to knowledge and modern forms of education." Consortium members include Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), Brightstar, Google, News Corporation, Nortel Networks, and Red Hat.

According to Negroponte, as quoted in The Guardian, "Laptops, as we know them, are a luxury. Education is not. At $100, this is about learning and exploration, not giving kids costly tools and toys. Almost anything, from healthcare to food to birth control, can be addressed well, if not best, through education. The deeper divides are unequivocally proportional to education. Peace will never happen as long as there is poverty. Poverty can only be eliminated through education."

The OLPC Consortium's members are working to define hardware specifications, software capabilities, and exactly how the hardware and software will work together. Employees of member companies, outside experts, MIT staff, students and volunteers are all involved in the design process. Government leaders in many developing and developed countries, (and governors of a few US states) have expressed interest in the project.

So, why push an initiative like this now? "We've been working now with computers and education for 30 years, computers in developing countries for 20 years, and trying to make low-cost machines for 10 years," Negroponte said "This is not a sudden turn down the road. What put us over the edge was that it was possible to do it. A combination of things that had been invented: display technology like electronic ink, mesh networks for communications, just a number of things that happened in the context of the Media Lab [indicated] that the time was right. Also telecommunications in developing countries is moving apace and things are happening—so it doesn't really need us anymore, that's going to happen. So focusing on the device and one laptop per child was kind of the natural thing to do." (Wired News, 11.17.2005)

Why Red Hat got involved

Negroponte's vision included an open source operating system and applications software, allowing children to adapt and adjust their machines as their needs and abilities changed.

"In the face of the massive wealth creation that the technology industry has created for so many, we have found it unconscionable that so many could be without the tools and resources to join the digital ecosystems of the 21st century," Matthew Szulik, CEO of Red Hat, said. "The One Laptop per Child initiative is another step in Red Hat's work to do defining work while making life a little better for others."

Tom Rabon, Red Hat's Vice President for Corporate Affairs, said, "The OLPC project typifies what is exciting about working at Red Hat. What other company could provide you with the opportunity to help bring technology to those who have been bypassed by the information superhighway that we all take for granted and create a big-picture potential business opportunity for the company at the same time? But what separates Red Hat from most companies is that the desire to do good and help others was the key driver in our decision to participate in OLPC."

"I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to visit the MIT Media Lab along with Paul Cormier [Red Hat's Executive VP of Engineering] early last Spring. I could tell from the moment that I met Nicholas Negroponte that this man was genuine in his passion...with a vision of how technology can enable and improve education around the globe. To me that sounded very similar to Red Hat's mission," Rabon said.

Mike Evans, who is serving as Red Hat's executive coordinator for the project and the Red Hat representative to the OLPC Board, says that there were three principles guiding Red Hat's decision to participate in the project: it would help make technology more affordable, it would improve relationships with the education/academic community, and it would focus on advancing one of Red Hat's key corporate goals—to improve the social fabric of society.

"One goal is to create a platform of open source software applications designed for educational environments. There is a large amount of experience on this at MIT Media Lab, and with other experts in the field. Our objective is to work closely with this consortium of leading companies and leading thinkers in education to help produce a great laptop system."

"In the big picture, think about the potential to have 5,10, 50, 500 million school children utilizing open source based technologies. If you extrapolate that over time (5-10-20 years) you have an incredible global force using and building open source software for business, education, consumer environments, and home use. I predict this will also help spawn the application of open source-like thinking and methods to several other subject areas, beyond computer software," Evans said.

But with minimum orders of 1 million required, isn't the initial cost of these laptops prohibitive for some governments? "The concept of delivering textbook content in digital form vs. the cost of printed books alone more than justifies it. Add in the ability to use 'up to the minute' educational content, and connect to the Internet and create programs and models of their own, and it will be dramatic."

What Red Hat is providing

Evans continues, "We are a key part of the software team because of our experience and leadership in the open source development model and community dynamics. We have engineers and designers dedicated to the project, some of whom are working on-site at MIT. This core development team is supplemented by other experts within the company on an as-needed basis. The project has also captured the imagination of many Red Hat employees worldwide; many are asking how they can help also."

Red Hat is currently defining the operating system software for the generation 1 and 2 OLPC laptops. The design plans cover work on the OS and applications, but also look at the larger issues of training, support, providing updates and integrating additional technologies over time.

Since this project is a departure from Red Hat's typical customer base, i.e. business users, it is requiring new thought patterns and innovative designs. Primary project objectives are driven not just by a desire to shape the software plan both now and for the future, but by the thought that through the success of the project, Red Hat can help change the world.

Engineering challenges—Hardware and software

The current hardware specifications include an 800x600 dual mode (full color or high contrast black and white) LCD screen, a 500MHz processor, wireless mesh networking, 1G of flash memory for storage, and a hand-crank for power generation. Oh, and a green and yellow plastic case.

What are the challenges of creating an operating system for this hardware? Brian Stein, Red Hat's OLPC project manager, expressed it this way: "These are far beyond the hardware. In comparison to recent embedded devices such as the Nokia 770 tablet, there's significant horsepower here. The memory footprint is certainly difficult, but the greatest challenge is delivering a relevant, well designed device to such a broad range of users. That said, Red Hat designers and engineers are up to the task and excited about the opportunity and challenge. It is forcing a balance of creative and pragmatic technological thinking that we love."

"We're faced, in OLPC's software, with a design task that is both unique opportunity and daunting challenge. Beyond specific and very real hurdles - functional illiteracy, ranging cultural perspectives toward ownership by children, multi-lingual input, etc - the context raises a demi-philosophical question: How can we design a computer system that can be intertwined with children's lives in ways they find meaningful and society finds educational?" adds Seth Nickell, lead interaction designer on the project.

World response to the project—Pro and con

There are lots of potential barriers—political, cultural, and social—to the success of OLPC. There is inadequate infrastructure, social instability due to poverty and war, low literacy rates, and corruption. Some critics of the project worry that few of the machines will actually end up in the hands of school children. Some question whether it is better to spend $100 million on laptops or on clean water and sanitation. A quick read through the archives of the Digital Divide Network or the responses to a recent article on Slashdot gives an idea of the wide-ranging concerns voiced by the communities already working to address social and technology issues in developing nations.

There are also some protectionist dynamics at work from those who want to perpetuate higher price computers. Others claim that any laptop that sells for $100 or less cannot have adequate technology to be competitive over time.

There are a lot of nay-sayers. But for every person who thinks it's impossible, there is another who buys into the dream. There is a desire by many governments around the world to help bring their people forward through technology, to spend the money to join the digital dialogue. Connecting people and providing them with better tools and information access cannot be a bad thing. "Holding back global advancement and inclusion is a bad thing to be on the wrong side of," Evans said.

So, should Red Hat have jumped into this project, when opinions on its success are so divided? Red Hat managers saw two options: not get involved and give up because it might be too hard, or push through and try to change the world for the better. Red Hat chose to be part of the latter mindset. Ambitious, yes. Easy, no. Needed and Doable, absolutely.

"The people of Red Hat saw the opportunity—albeit a large challenge—to have their work positively impact the lives of many. It is no surprise to me that our people rose to the challenge. They have always been motivated by large challenges," Szulik said

Most anyone who has truly changed the world was originally doubted or ridiculed. As Gandhi said (a quote that is reflected across the lobby of Red Hat's headquarters), "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win."

Kofi Annan introduced the $100 laptop last month at the World Summit on the information Society (WSIS) in Tunis. In his opening statement, Annan said, "Some inventions are ahead of their time. Others are perfectly of their time. Still others seem so obvious and natural that once people hear about them, or see them—they wonder why it took so long for them to come into being. It is rare—it is a rare invention indeed—that manages to be all greatness at once. But Nicholas Negroponte, his team, of the world renowned MIT media lab and their partners—have given us just such a breakthrough. The $100 laptop is inspiring in many respects."

Governments and corporations are stepping up to participate. The OLPC project will succeed or fail on the strength of the community that supports it. There may not be another opportunity for the Linux community to make such a difference to the world. Want to help Red Hat change the world—a million kids at a time? Send an email to olpc@redhat.com. As more information becomes available, we'll be in touch. More information

About the author

Lucy Ringland is a documentation specialist with Red Hat.