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MIT Media Labs $100 Laptop

Research Report by Kim Knight
(created 3/30/06; Updated 8/13/06; version 1.2)

Related Categories: Hardware Innovations; Online Reading and Society

Original Object for Study description

From the OLPC website: “One Laptop per Child (OLPC) is a new, non-profit association dedicated to research to develop a $100 laptop–a technology that could revolutionize how we educate the world’s children. This initiative was first announced by Nicholas Negroponte at the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland in January 2005. Our goal: to provide children around the world with new opportunities to explore, experiment, and express themselves.” The ”$100 laptops–not yet in production–will not be available for sale. The laptops will only be distributed to schools directly through large government initiatives.”

The MIT Media Lab initially announced the goal to develop a $100 laptop in January 2005. Since then, the organization One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) was created to oversee research and development. In November 2005 the first prototype, the green machine, was unveiled and in December, the program announced that Quanta computer would manufacture the machines. There have been two subsequent prototypes, the blue machine and the yellow machine:

MIT $100 Laptop

OLPC is partnering with RedHat on software development and is committed to working solely with OpenSource platforms. Each laptop will have wireless broadband and will be ready to connect to local peer-to-peer networks out of the box. OLPC is addressing all facets of the distribution and education process, including content and teacher education based upon constructionist theories of learning.

The laptops are going to be sold to governments and distributed via schools. OLPC is currently working with China, India, Brazil, Argentina, Egypt, Nigeria, and Thailand, and it looks as though Brazil will be the first country to actually implement the program. Although developing nations are the core market of the OLPC, the U.S. state Massachusetts currently has plans to purchase laptops from the program. Manufacturing will begin as soon as OLPC receives payment for 5 to 10 million machines. Current estimates anticipate rollout of the first laptops in late 2006 / early 2007.

The initial pricing will be $135 per machine with projections that the price will fall to $100 in 2008 and $50 by 2010. In order to prevent the laptops being sold on a secondary market, they will automatically be disabled if the machine does not log into a local network every few days. Although the front page of the OLPC website declares that these laptops will not be commercially available, the project Wiki states that they are exploring parallel development of a commercial product.

In addition to a handful of corporate partners, the UN has recently joined OLPC in the effort to implement the program.

OLPC has been criticized for a number of reasons. Most recently, Bill Gates has publicly stated that the distribution of internet-enabled cell phones would be a more efficient program. Some nations, such as Nigeria, have stated that the project would be more appropriate for them if it allowed them to manufacture the machines themselves. Other critiques include the accusation that the program is digital utopianism.

Research Context:
The $100 laptop has obvious implications for hardware innovations, especially given the plans to explore a commercial version of the machine. In addition, OLPC’s constructionist approach to learning and current exploration of Wikis as e-books may be of interest to those studying online reading practices or collective reading.

Technical Analysis:

The OLPC is focused on producing a laptop, rather than a desktop model, because they want the machine to be fully integrated into the student’s work and play. The student’s increasing facility with the laptop and its presence in the home may also encourage other family members to work with the computer.

(Unless otherwise noted, all references are to the first-generation laptop) The two main hardware concerns are battery life and processor speed. The group is currently investigating a variety of methods for power generation, including a hand crank, foot pedal, and a pulley system. The goal is one minute of cranking will produce a minimum of ten minutes of power. In addition, the machines will come with a power adapter for charging purposes. The first generation of machines will include an “AMD Geode GX500@1.0W with AMD CS5536 companion chip (note that the “500” chip really operates at a 366MHz clock)”. Designs are already under way for the second-generation chip.

The laptops will include between 512 MB and 1 GB of Flash memory, expandable through three USB ports. The machines will have two separate modes: “E-book,” which will operate with a high resolution, low-power monochrome display, and an additional mode that operates with a a lower resolution, transmissive DVD color display. The laptops will have a standard keyboard and trackpad (that may have graphical input) with an additional 10 buttons for E-book functions. They will also feature dual internal speakers and an internal microphone. The antenna design of the machine is integral to OLPC’s planning. With an improved design and the Marvell 8388 wireless chip, they hope that access to the mesh network will be up to four times greater than that of commercial models. Because the computers are developed for portability in harsh climates, the design will feature increased resistance to dust, water, etc.

As mentioned above, OLPC is partnering with RedHat and committed to an OpenSource operating system and software development. As such, they invite interested parties to join development workgroups in conjunction with a task-list maintained on the Wiki. The most basic applications in development are “an operating system; a web browser; an eBook reader; and some other base-level utilities, such as audio recording and playback, video playback, word processing, tools for drawing, etc.”

One of the areas of current investigation is the use of Wikis as e-book readers, particularly the use of WikiBooks, powered by MediaWiki, the same software that powers Wikipedia.

Evaluation of Opportunities/Limitations for the Transliteracies Topic:
One of the most important issues to consider in any conversation about online reading is that of “access.” If the $100 laptop project succeeds, online reading could become the norm, rather than the exception, for children in developing nations. Given the possibility of a commercial product, we may also see a substantial increase in computer ownership among poor children in developed nations. With the sort of portability to which OLPC aspires, one can almost envision children who carry their laptops everywhere and are willing to whip them out with a moment’s notice to look up information or to occupy themselves when bored. This could signal an important shift, in which the laptop functions like the portable gaming system or music player.

Furthermore, OLPC’s insistence on open source operating systems and software may have interesting consequences for the development of online reading tools. Firstly, it alleviates any accusations that the project could be used to indoctrinate children to capitalist models of consumption. It is also likely that the OLPC themselves will be developing tools for reading. They are currently doing work in the area of using wikis as e-books. Additionally, if children are first introduced to computing via open source and are encouraged to revise and improve applications, this could result in users with a more active/creative relationship to their computers. As children get older, development communities are likely to emerge. Once accustomed to computing with open source, users may be less likely to develop a dependence on commercial products that do not allow access to their source code. It is difficult to foresee what the future will look like with an entire generation of users raised with open source ideologies.

Without slipping into digital utopianism, it seems safe to speculate that the $100 laptop project will have implications in terms of spreading open source ideology and equalizing access to resources, both issues that are of interest to Transliteracies.


  • Fuse Project’s new prototype, “the orange machine”:
    The Orange Machine
  • On August 4, 2006, Jimmy Wales announced that Wikipedia’s content will be part of the $100 Laptop’s repository.

Resources for Further Study:

  • Markoff, John. “Microsoft Would Put Poor Online by Cellphone.” New York Times. 30 January 2006.
  • Naugthon, John. “The $100 Laptop Question.” The Guardian. 4 December 2005.
  • One-Laptop-Per-Child.
  • OLPC Wiki
  • OLPC’s OpenSource Manifesto
  • Wikipedia. “Constructionist Learning.”
  • Young, Jeffrey R. “UN Joins MIT Effort to Give Low-cost Laptops to Schoolchildren.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 10 February 2006.
  • —-. “MIT Researchers Unveil a $100 Laptop They Hope Will Benefit Children Worldwide.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 16 November 2005.

  tl, 03.30.06

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