Techno utopia

Millions of cheap XO-1 laptops could get kids in poorer nations connected

If Nicholas Negroponte was nervous about the worldwide launch of the XO-1 next spring, he didn't show it to the Commons committee room packed with UK technologists and parliamentarians. After receiving thanks for his flying visit to deliver the keynote speech at the annual "Parliament and the Internet" conference last month, he weighed straight into a presentation he must now have given hundreds of times. For his is the One Laptop per Child project and, after years of anticipation, it is nearly upon us.

The XO-1 is a simple, if ambitious, idea: design and build a laptop that can deliver the creative power of networked computing to millions of children in the developing world. On the face of it, the project is pure techno utopia. But Negroponte was a student of Seymour Papert of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Papert himself was a protégé of the developmental psychologist Jean Piaget) and he stresses the educational theory behind the idea. Building computer programs is the closest a child can come to "thinking about thinking", to learning by doing. The XO-1 is the logical conclusion of the observation that children just "get" computers, while adults stand aside in awe.

Five years ago, a laptop that would be relevant to the majority of children in the developing world looked impossible. It would have to work where there is no mains electricity and far less access to an internet connection. And it would have to be affordable. But the XO-1 meets all these challenges. Power is generated manually by a hand crank, and the pared-down design requires far less than a conventional laptop. Wireless mesh networking is built in: two robust antennae detect other XO-1s in the area, forming ad-hoc intranets, with any one machine connected to the internet automatically sharing that connection with others.

The exclusive use of free and open-source software keeps costs low. Currently, the XO-1 ships at $188, and the aim is to drive down the price further. That price is available only when ordering in bulk, and Negroponte has visited leaders of developing nations to secure bulk orders in a launch round that includes Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Rwanda.

But the MIT team has come up with an ingenious way of making the XO-1 even cheaper. And that is to offer models for sale to the millions of developed-world geeks who are salivating after this iconic piece of hardware. On 12 November, the Give One Get One scheme will offer North Americans a Thanksgiving-only chance to buy an XO-1, so long as they buy one for a child in the developing world, too. The UK may not be far behind. Derek Wyatt MP, host of the conference and co-chair of the all-party parliamentary communications group, pledged to do all that he could to get Give One Get One operational in the UK. This geek just hopes he'll have succeeded in time for Christmas.

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq uncovered