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January 11, 2008

Tech, GP: XO-1 is the little computer that could

A persevering longshot is coming down the home stretch ahead of everybody else.

And it looks like some poor people may be getting a big payoff.

Most of the time, technologists' excitement revolves around the newer, whiz-bangier, more powerful, bigger and better whatever-it-is.

Recently, a lot of people are getting wound up about a smaller, lower-powered device with what many would call limited use, developed not by Dell or HP, but by a nonprofit educational group.

It's a little laptop computer, called the ``XO-1."

You can't even go out and buy one for yourself, at least not at the present time, although there are those who are trying to make that possible.

The brainchild of a project called One Laptop Per Child, or OLPC, its goal is best described on its website: ``OLPC is not, at heart, a technology program, nor is the XO a product in any conventional sense of the word. OLPC is a nonprofit organization providing a means to an end _ an end that sees children in even the most remote regions of the globe being given the opportunity to tap into their own potential, to be exposed to a whole world of ideas, and to contribute to a more productive and saner world community.''

Trying to compare their little laptop with any ``normal'' laptop is like comparing apples and oranges.

First, it's color is lime green. How many lime green laptops have you seen?

There are things that the XO can't do, such as run Windows or regular Windows programs.

It's got a much smaller screen display than you're used to. But then, it wasn't designed to do the things a regular laptop does. It was designed to help educate poor kids.

The original concept was that it would be a $100 laptop, able to be distributed in large numbers to children in developing countries. They say it may make that price point as production ramps up into the millions, but for now it costs slightly less than $200.

It is rugged, has no internal moving parts such as disk drives, and can wirelessly mesh with others of its kind in a classroom situation, automatically, to enable collaboration. If an Internet connection is available, they can all share it and peruse literally a world of information.

It can be turned into a tablet-like form by moving the display, and it can hold a couple hundred books, essentially turning into an e-book reader. Its display is easy to read, even in bright sunlight.

It only uses a handful of watts of power, compared to the 40 or more that a typical laptop uses, and there are several creative ways to power it, including solar and foot-power. Its batteries can be charged from many power sources. If you want to play the "up-to" game, it has a battery that can last up to 21 hours.

It can create music and artwork, and its storage is more akin to a journal than to a hierarchical filing system.

In short, it was designed from scratch by experts from both academia and industry to be a tool for children to learn with.

When the idea was first floated by Nicholas Negroponte, most technology "experts" thought it was way out there _ a pie-in-the-sky dream that shouldn't be taken seriously.

If you were Microsoft or Intel, a $100 laptop wouldn't even reach the first tick on the corporate speedometer.

So, the OLPC designed it with an AMD processor, and got Redhat to make the operating system, a version of Linux that was christened "Sugar." The group hired a talented inventor to come up with the hardware innovations. Group members did a lot of thinking and hard development work.

As I've been known to say before, that was then. This is now.

Several developing nations have signed on to the project, and hundreds of thousands are on order and in production.

Now, Intel and Microsoft are struggling to come up with an answer to the little computer that could. They sure don't want the world seeing that something other than Windows on Intel can be a revolutionary success.

The OLPC project is a spin-off of MIT's Media Lab, and its website, if you're curious, is

Bruce Endries is former systems manager at The Daily Star. He can be reached by e-mail at