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Intelligent Machines

$100 Laptop Gets Redesigned

The new machine will have dual touch screens–and cheaper hardware.

Tossing aside its iconic green-and-white laptop with its distinctive antennas, One Laptop per Child (OLPC) is pursuing a smaller 2.0 version, scheduled for release in 2010, in which dual touch screens will replace the keypad. The new version will have lower power consumption and a $75 price–a figure that OLPC claims is achievable despite the fact that the current model, the XO, sells for nearly double the sum mentioned in its “$100 laptop” moniker.

Hundred-dollar laptop, revisited: The next-generation version of the One Laptop per Child machine will dispense with keypads. It can be folded flat to make one larger screen or it can be held on its side and used as an electronic book.

With its hinged dual display, the new version could be used as a book, as a laptop with a touch-screen keypad, or as one continuous display when folded flat. “The display is going to get better and better, and it’s key to the next generation,” Nicholas Negroponte, founder of OLPC, said yesterday at a launch event at the MIT Media Lab.

The redesign is OLPC’s latest effort to revitalize global adoption of its machines. Last week, OLPC announced that the current version will soon have the option of running on Microsoft Windows; previously, the machines only ran on the GNU/Linux operating system, plus a custom interface called Sugar that emphasizes collaboration among children. With the addition of Windows, OLPC hopes to boost sales to countries, such as Egypt, that already use Windows software in schools.

Pixel Qi, the display-technology startup founded by former OLPC chief technology officer Mary Lou Jepsen, will collaborate in the development of the new computer. Its smaller size will make the laptops easier for children to carry than the previous, larger version, Negroponte said yesterday. And despite the smaller size, the display will be larger–when both screens are used–than the one on the current version. Because the machine will have no keypad, there will be fewer mechanical parts to break. And whereas the current XO consumes only two to four watts–one-tenth of the amount consumed by a conventional laptop–the next-generation version will use as little as one watt.

But until the new machine comes online, the existing XO will continue to be sold. Only about 600,000 hard orders have come in–a far cry from the 100 million that, two years ago, Negroponte said he was hoping to obtain by 2008. And last week’s announcement that the XO will have the option of using Windows or the existing Linux-based operating system has led to some debate among education officials. Yesterday, Oscar Becerra, a Peruvian education ministry official who directs the OLPC deployment under way there, says that he sees little value in adding Windows for computers in primary schools.

Hundred-dollar laptop, revisited: The next-generation version of the One Laptop per Child machine will dispense with keypads. It can be folded flat to make one larger screen (left); here, two children could play a game, each using the touch-screen capability. Or it can be held on its side and used as an electronic book (right).

The extra cost of $10 for the Windows version is not trivial, he says: “If I have 10 dollars, I will decide what to do with it.” Right now, Becerra is scrambling to find funds to buy thousands of small solar-powered rechargers–at $20 each–for machines that he is deploying to villages that lack electricity.

Some open-source software advocates see an additional high cost of adding Windows. Richard Stallman, a pioneer of the GNU operating system and founder of the Free Software Foundation, says that he is now motivated to try to ignite grassroots opposition. “It’s an issue of freedom versus power,” he said in a telephone interview from Taiwan. “Proprietary software is under the power of its developer, and it puts the user under the power of the developer. This is like handing out samples of an addictive drug–not something that schools ought to do.”

But executives of OLPC and other observers defend the action, noting that since the OLPC educational software platform, known as Sugar, will now run on Windows, the move will promote OLPC’s mission far more widely. “The open-source community continues writing software for the Sugar interface,” Charles Kane, OLPC’s new president, said yesterday. “There is a community in the Linux world that continues to contribute to the ongoing success of this.” But, he added, with the existing XOs, “we’re trying to make a transition in a form that makes us successful in the marketplace.”

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