Computing

$100 Laptop Becomes a $5 PC

Putting OLPC’s software on a USB drive gives old PCs a new lease on life.

The open-source education software developed for the “$100 laptop” can now be loaded onto a $5 USB stick to run aging PCs and Macs with a new interface and custom educational software.

Sugar coating: The Sugar interface is designed for children. Bundled programs help users engage in reading, writing, math, painting, and game playing, and emphasize creativity and collaboration.

“What we are doing is taking a bunch of old machines that barely run Windows 2000, and turning them into something interesting and useful for essentially zero cost,” says Walter Bender, former president of the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) project. “It becomes a whole new computer running off the USB key; we can breathe new life into millions of decrepit old machines.”

Bender left OLPC last year to found Sugar Labs, which promotes the open-source user interface, dubbed Sugar, and educational software originally developed at OLPC. Bender has dubbed the new effort Sugar on a Stick. The software can be downloaded for free from the Sugar Labs website as part of the new initiative, which will be announced at a conference in Berlin today.

This summer, Sugar Labs will also deploy the software at the Gardner Pilot Academy, an elementary school in Boston, under a $20,000 grant from the Gould Charitable Foundation. Sugar Labs also plans to release an improved version of the software at the end of 2009.

The Sugar interface was custom-designed for children. The new Sugar on a Stick download features 40 software programs, including core applications called Read, Write, Paint, and Etoys. Many other applications are available for download, most of which emphasize creative collaboration among children. The USB software can boot up an aging computer, or a netbook, and save data from any of the programs.

In addition, Sugar-powered machines are designed to work with server software that can also be downloaded for free. This server software can be operated by a school and used to distribute content, collect homework, back up data, and filter access to the Internet. Once Sugar and the server software have been installed, two children using different computers can work on the same document at the same time, for example.

The Sugar interface and related software have already been used by more than one million children, nearly all of them users of the original OLPC XO laptop.

Bender’s departure from OLPC came after a disagreement over the organization’s plans to break away from a pure open-source approach and offer a “dual-boot” version of its laptop that could also run a stripped-down version of Microsoft’s Windows operating system, something Bender said he feared would make OLPC “just another laptop company.” But Nicholas Negroponte, founder of OLPC and, previously, cofounder of MIT’s Media Lab, said that the move was necessary to boost sales and, consequently, expand the availability of the machines to children.

Despite some large-scale deployments, such as one in Peru, the XO has fallen short of Negroponte’s ambitious plans: in 2006 he was predicting sales of more than 100 million machines by 2008.Negroponte said last night that almost a million children have XO laptops, in 19 languages and 32 countries, including Haiti, Rwanda, Afghanistan and Mongolia, and that “another million are in process.” But even if its own laptop sales were relatively modest, OLPC essentially pioneered the netbook concept, prodding the industry to start making small, stripped down, cheap computers, which are now a significant share of the computer market.

And now, with Sugar available to run old computers, the OLPC learning model can expand in a new direction. “Putting Sugar on a stick is absolutely the right thing to do,” Negroponte added.

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