Friday, November 9

Building a better laptop

On Tuesday, the One Laptop per Child project started production at a factory in China, mass-producing an initial run of 250,000 models that will go out to children in nations like Nigeria, Thailand and Peru, where they've already been trialled. The bright green casing looks like a rugged alien. The stylized interface is friendly and playful. It's designed for the ground-up for kids. But the team behind it are dead serious.

The OLPC project harnesses and coordinates a large network of volunteer programmers, who refine aspects like security applications which protect against large-scale attacks, compiler optimisation to speed up code-building, remote display for projectors and memory usage minimising.

Because a hard-drive is one of the top items to break on traditional laptops, the XO model features a tiny flash-drive instead. For programmers, this means a return to 80's era coding - building highly functional software in as few lines of script as possible, ditching huge 'code libraries' with big filesize footprints for tiny utilities and more custom work.

In Abuja, Nigeria, the nearest powerpoint could be a long walk away. So it makes sense that the OLPC are pedantic about electricity usage. "For us, every joule matters, and a simplistic 'oh, we mostly have most of a chip turned off, maybe' isn't good enough." The default display mode uses 1 watt of power - 1/7th of the average laptop display. Run out of power? Charge it up again with a hand crank on the side.

In the last few months, the team have put the XO through it's paces: developing hour-long 'smoke tests', tracking down obscure bugs in the kernel, localising keyboards for West Africa and Nepal, optimising rendering, and refining to stabilised builds. The prototype hardware has been tested to destruction in the factory, as well as the acid test - children on playgrounds in Peru, jungle field trips in Thailand, and the dust of Maharashtra, India.

Images from OLPC Project, available under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5

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