Gift aid

US citizens looking to imbue their Christmas presents with an altruistic air will, from November 12th, have the opportunity to deliver the gift of technology to developing world children.


Under the so-called ‘give one get one’ scheme, consumers will be able to pay $399 for a brand new XO laptop, whilst a second will be distributed to either Cambodia, Afghanistan, Rwanda or Haiti


Developed specifically for children in the developing world, The XO – or the $100 laptop as it has popularly become known – is the brainchild of not-for-profit group One Laptop Per Child (OLPC).


Running on an open-source Linux operating system, the machine uses flash memory in place of a hard drive. It has a specially-developed low-power display screen that can be read in the sunlight, a 10-hour battery life, and consumes so little power that it can be charged by hand. What’s more, separate computers are able to connect to each other via a built-in wireless feature dubbed Mesh networking. As well as enabling laptops to talk to each other, this also allows multiple laptops to piggyback on another computer’s internet connection.


It’s a neat idea, bristling with Engineering innovation and spearheaded by some of the brainiest people from the world of computer science: but the concept has had an exceptionally rocky ride.


Though it has been dubbed the $100 laptop, the machine has come in for a barrage of criticism in recent weeks over its current price tag of just under $200. Plus, while the give one get scheme is a nice idea, the main focus for OLPC has been selling the machines direct to governments, and the group has been hit hard by the news that Nigeria, site of its most exhaustive trials, has decided to plump for a rival machine, the Intel Classmate.


On the first charge, It’s perhaps unfair to claim that OLPC has been misleading over the price of its machines. Talking to The Engineer earlier in the year the foundation’s technical director, Mary Lou Jepsen stated that $100 is a target it’s aiming for by 2009. In the meantime, in an industry where an average display screen costs $120, getting the cost of a laptop down to less than $200 is no mean feat.


And while the news from Nigeria is a big blow for the project, it has received a huge boost this week with the announcement that the government of Uruguay is to buy 10,000 of the machines and plans on getting one for every child in the country by 2009. The foundation must now wait anxiously whilst other countries that have expressed an interest decide whether to sign up or not.


What’s more, while OLPC’s founder Nicholas Negroponte will be the first to admit that the project has so far fallen short of its lofty ambition, the struggles it has faced are arguably a positive thing. They have toughened up the project, and forced it to face up to the fact that however noble its aims it has to face upto the harsh realities of the global economic climate.




Jon Excell