Tuesday, May 01, 2007

It's cute, green -- and may change world

It's cute, green -- and may change world
By Carolyn Y. Johnson, Globe Staff | April 27, 2007

CAMBRIDGE -- With its cute bunny ears, its whimsical pull-string charger, and its big plastic handle, the lime-green XO laptop doesn't look like a technology that will change education and computing worldwide.

But at a demonstration in the Cambridge offices of non profit One Laptop Per Child yesterday, founder Nicholas Negroponte said that was exactly what would happen as the project moves from dream to reality this September.

"We talk about the mission, versus the market," Negroponte said.

The so-called $100 laptop -- which today costs $175 -- is a low-power, lightweight computer that can withstand a torrential rainstorm, work in bright sunlight, and be powered by kids who are willing to wind cranks or yank cords to keep it running.

Negroponte said he hopes ultimately to put his computer in the hands of 1 billion children between ages 6 and 16 in developing countries, with production ramping up to 400,000 units per month by the end of this year, for a total of 3 million in the first production wave . His partners, companies like chip maker Advanced Micro Devices , software maker Red Hat , and display manufacturer Chi Mei Group , echoed his high-minded wish to change the world through technology.

But tooling around on the laptop is also fun.

The green-and-white laptop has a small, high-resolution screen that swivels to turn into a tablet. A sliding button turns the backlight out, allowing users to save energy or take the laptop outside and use it in bright sunlight.

On either side are 2-inch-long plastic rabbit ears that flip up to increase its wireless range. They look rather fragile but have been drop-tested successfully from up to 5 feet, its makers said.

The laptop features a keyboard so tiny it seems suited only for children's hands, with game controls on either side of the screen that turn it into a big Gameboy.

Negroponte said that the computer can run Windows, but it s current operating system is a simple, open-source menu with big friendly icons stripped across the bottom of the screen. And while its creators envision the laptop used as an educational tool for collaboration, children will also be able to play a Tetris-like game called BlockParty or compose a sonata using a virtual orchestra consisting of everything from a baby's coo to a guinea pig's squeak.

Hundreds of the laptops are already being tested by children in seven launch countries including Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Nigeria, Libya, Pakistan, and Thailand. But starting in September, the makers plan to ramp up production, releasing 400,000 laptops per month.

The entire contraption folds up into a miniature plastic white briefcase that its makers said would withstand a heavy rainstorm. During testing, they dunked the laptop in a bucket of water for 10 minutes, with no effect on its function.

For power, the laptop can plug into an electrical outlet, or users can yank on its pull charger, crank a handle, or sit in bright sunlight with a flexible solar panel.

The string pull charge, on display yesterday, means about six minutes of pulling for an hour to use the device in its low-power e-book mode, with no backlight.

In contrast to today's computers, which are mainly about connecting to the Internet and bringing stuff down, this computer is made to send stuff up, allowing the user-generated revolution to hit the developing world.

"How big is the horizon for the kids in some of these villages?" said Josh Bernoff, analyst at Forrester Research. "Now they will have a way to communicate with the rest of the world."

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com.

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