Committed for Better Business

One of my podcasting co-hosts, Mark Gura, and I have been discussing the $100+ laptop project on and off for the past two years in our popular biweekly series. If you’re not familiar with the $100 laptop project; has been spearheaded by Nicholas Negroponte, formerly of MIT. The significance of this is the way it has taken advantage of the tidal wave of open source software adoption and forced computer makers to develop low-cost netbooks. This education related project has truly transformed the computer industry and the expectations of technology users!


Negraponte’s project is now called One Laptop per Child (OLPC) because the basic purpose is to provide low-cost and durable laptops to children in developing countries. The prototype of these laptops has gone through wide variations and has drawn much criticism in recent years and never claims to be the “do it all” computer.

These are basic models, and yet quite revolutionary in several ways. On the one hand, they are very small, they have alternative energy sources, such as manual feeding, they can be connected to each other to form an intranet (wireless broadband that can mesh a network) and, above all, they do not suffer from what the founder calls Microsoft bloat. “In dedicated efforts to keep the cost so low, the software used is open source, requiring much smaller installation space and hardware operation requirements.

Brief details of the original 2007 prototype: Linux based operating system, dual mode display, 500 MHz processor, 128 MB DRAM and 500 MB Flash memory. No hard drive, four USB ports and the wireless broadband that creates a mesh network.

Enter: Wider Public Adoption of Open Source Software!

On several episodes of the Teachers Podcast, we discuss the merger of another of my favorite tech trends with the OLPC phenomenon: open source software and development. Open source development occurs when groups of people openly share source code in the development of programming languages, operating systems, or other applications. The purpose is for the community to be able to test and work collaboratively around the world on the project with many available minds and perspectives that might not otherwise come together and work together. It really is a community and therefore the content and the product remain “open”, i.e. free to use. Very often a Creative Commons code license is used to describe the use and attribution of software.

Probably the most famous current example is the Linux operating system (identified by its mascot, the penguin, also known as Tux). Related to Linux, which has dozens of programmers working on it all over the world, there are also other Linux-like operating systems available, including Apache, Ubantu, Linspire, and more. For the education sector, open source software has been long behind in adoption, as schools have remained mostly on PCs and a small number on Macs in the younger grades. However, having been to a few edtech conferences in the last couple of years, I’ve seen a different trend finally paying off and the OLPC project could push it even further! Let me explain.

At edtech conferences, we’ve experienced hands-on demos of Linux or Ubantu network labs, which are “dumb terminals” hooked up to a server and all get access to the Internet and applications from the server. This first-hand experience provides an entry point for many teachers, edtech specialists, and school administrators who might never have considered these options otherwise. In these cases, the participants see that there is not a large loss of performance with this setup, while the cost of this equipment is a small fraction of a conventional school lab. This is due to two obvious main factors: 1) the hardware is not standalone computers and 2) the operating system is open source. Hardware costs and upgrade costs are also greatly reduced, as is the fact that software licenses and upgrades are eliminated.

Open source software is no longer just for tech heads. These platforms are similar to most other programs. And there are thousands of freely available open source programs to meet business, educational, graphic, music composition, media design, and application needs, to name just a few. Technologies) in your schools, we are seeing the march of penguins, pencils and laptops strutting for education. At a time of increased scrutiny of school budgets and increased accountability, I expect 2009-2010 to be a time when open source software, dummy terminals, and virtual terminals (to be discussed in a forthcoming ezine article) they will be advancing at a double or triple rate.

May 2009 update

The massive wave of netbooks (Asus, Acer, HP, Dell and more) that have flooded the PC market in the last 16 months has been a welcome relief for both consumer and school budgets. We have Dr. Negroponte to thank for almost single-handedly transforming the computer industry by propelling his OLPC project to the top of the corporate competition chart. The details developed near the health of Negroponte’s progress was the Asus group and the release of the laptop with Linux on board (originally).

Not just for the tech folk, these launched in the standard gray and black colors, but also shocking pink, green, and white; we can see that the market was broader than what the standard computing industry had been addressing). His product was enthusiastically received and had such an impact on the public market that major computer manufacturers had to respond quickly. Now, as of June 2009, we have netbooks available from all the major manufacturers for less than $500. The resulting smaller, much less expensive (approximately 77% price reduction), and more robust hardware selections that we now see around us in computer and office stores are originally due to OLPC’s reorganization of a system optimistic and overrated.

A related wave of adoption also continues in the spring of 2009, which is that open source, from Open to Linux, has had a very good year so far. Not only are we seeing more advertisements for these products in mainstream publications, but laymen (non-techies) are asking, requesting, and using them as well. What does this mean for Microsoft? Will there really be a backlash against high upgrade prices? We’ve talked about frustration for years, but has the time come for it to have a significant impact? These are exciting times for the voice of the people!

The connection

As more and more people catch the vision of netbooks and realize they don’t need high-end computers for every student classroom and could instead even provide computers to take home with the kids; it will be the open source software penguins who lead that march as well. It’s been a long day for our education system to see that this is a much cheaper way to serve teachers and students and therefore to be able to serve ALL.

An important aside, it is worth reading and exploring, Negroponte is so open that he is now publishing a wiki where he openly shows production technical notes, technical requirements, software, participating countries, photos of prototypes and much more ( see: Putting these tools in the hands of multitudes of schools and students around the world, near and far, can really change who the voices will be and who will be in the global conversations in just a few months and our global political future.

Providing such a tool and entry to the outside world not only for students, but also for their families, since that is part of the purpose, can build a rising wave of social change through many forms of literacy and understanding. When the walls of Equity and Access come down in even these small ways, the opportunities are great for people to rise up into new possibilities. Penguins, open source, education, and $100 laptops have great empowering potential for the world’s children, adults, and nations.

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