eWEEK's Emerging Technology Looks at the OLPC's XO laptop
See the XO's Sugar Interface in Action. Get a first hand look at Sugar features such as the Mesh and see some of the applications bundled with the XO's Linux-based operating system
The Hardware of the XO laptop - While at the OLPC offices we had the opportunity to get hands-on with the XO laptop
Podcast: The Tech of the XO Listen to a podcast of my interviews with OLPC CTO Mary Lou Jepsen and OLPC President Walter Bender. One Laptop Per Child's XO (commonly referred to as the $100 laptop) is designed to change the world by bringing computing resources to children in the developing world. But the many innovations in the XO may also end up changing the world of technology.
When you first see the XO the thought that immediately jumps to mind is "kid's toy." With its bright green color, built-in carrying handle, funny rabbit ears and rubber membrane keyboard, it looks like something that Fisher-Price might produce.
But when you pick it up, you realize how sturdy and well built the XO is. And when you turn it on, you discover that you are connecting wirelessly to the Internet and to other XO users that are creating a local network. You find lots of software designed for kids but also find some groundbreaking collaboration tools that let you work with others in ways that outshine some of the best corporate groupware.
Oh yeah, even though bright sunshine is beating down upon the laptop screen, you're having no trouble reading the display. But the sunlight is OK since it's powering your system through a small, low-cost solar cell. And the XO doesn't need much power since it runs at a fraction of what laptops that are considered "green" run at.
This is the XO, a system that was born when MIT legend Nicholas Negroponte set out to build a $100 laptop, in order to make it possible to deliver computers to kids and schools in developing countries. And while the XO didn't make the $100 target price (instead it's currently coming in at around $175), it does now sit nearly ready to be deployed around the world.
I recently had the opportunity to spend some time at the offices of the One Laptop Per Child project and I got to take a first had look at the final beta version of the XO, dubbed "B4". I also had the chance to speak to OLPC President Walter Bender and Chief Technology Officer Mary Lou Jepsen.
Based on earlier looks I'd had of the $100 laptop, I expected to be impressed simply by the economy, low-power capabilities and wireless mesh features of the XO. But what I saw firsthand exceeded these expectations.
Put simply, the XO is one of the most revolutionary computer systems that I've seen in some time. The entire time I was looking at the XO, I was thinking, why can't my new expensive laptop do this? The technologies that the OLPC's XO are introducing could go a long way towards changing the face of future systems, especially in the area of power consumption.
However, we shouldn't expect to see the OLPC start commercializing these technologies anytime soon. While there is still a possibility that XO's may be sold to the public at a price that helps subsidize their deployment to the developing world, Jepsen said that when people from Silicon Valley ask her about commercializing the XO's technologies, she says, "Get in line, you have a billion kids in front of you."
But simply by doing what they've done, the OLPC will change the laptops and systems that we will all be seeing in the near future. The XO is changing the rules of the game, and everyone will expect other manufacturers to start offering capabilities comparable to the XO (especially at premium prices).
In this article, I'll cover the core innovations I saw in both the hardware and software capabilities of the XO. By the end of this article you may be jealous of the computing resources that will be in the hands of some lucky kids in the developing world. But right now they need it more than you do.
HARDWARE See slideshow of the OLPC's XO laptop
If the goal is to create a low-cost laptop with low power consumption then the place to start is with the display, which is typically the most expensive and power-hungry part of a laptop. Jepsen said that, when they began work on the XO, the first goal was to build a display that would be low-cost. "But in the process I wanted to make a better display that would be more appropriate for the use conditions in the developing world."
This meant not just low power consumption but also the ability to read the display in bright sunlight. Also, while commercial projects to develop new technologies can take many years, the OLPC needed to achieve this in a matter of months.
There are a lot of technical details on how Jepsen and the OLPC succeeded in creating a display that would work in direct sunlight; the use of diagonal rather than horizontal color stripes and the fact that each pixel is both a black and white and a color pixel (each pixel is one color, either red, green or blue).
"The tradeoff was black and white high resolution in sunlight and color in a room or at night," Jepsen said.
All of this is fascinating but the real point is, does it work? When I was at the OLPC offices it was a beautiful sunny summer day in Cambridge, Mass. We took a couple of XO's outside for lunch and in the strong and directly overhead sunlight, I had no problem whatsoever reading the content on the XO's screen.
Yes, the content was in black and white instead of color (though indoors I found the color quality of the XO display to be good, even when watching video), but what's better, a black and white screen that you can read or a color screen that's invisible outside? I found the XO's display to be the best direct sunlight viewing display that I've ever seen, even compared to smaller screens found on PDAs and smart phones.
What about the power issue? According to Jepsen, the display uses 1 Watt of average power consumption and, when the backlight is off, it uses 100 milliwatts of power. Also, Jepsen said that they decided to put memory in the timing controller of the display so the display could stay on while the motherboard was turned off. This was because, in many cases, people spend a lot of time reading and the processor isn't doing anything. They were able to put the CPU in or out of hibernation in a tenth of a second so that users wouldn't even notice the change. Jepsen said that often in eBook-mode the XO uses less than a half a watt.
While idling, the XO uses about 1 Watt of power, leading Jepsen to say, "It's the greenest laptop ever made and that's not just its color." To make her point Jepsen pointed out that the newest Energy Star requirement is for a laptop to use 14 watts while idling.
Of course when it comes to power and the XO, much of the early focus has been on the unique ways to power the laptop, including the goofy attached crank of the early demos, which is no longer a part of the laptop.
Rather than focusing on one specific power system, the OLPC has directed itself towards building an ecosystem of alternative power sources. These include everything from small $10 solar panels to string pull generators to bike systems to small windmills. While at the OLPC offices, we were able to see both a solar panel and a string pull system in action.
When it comes to power for a laptop the battery is also a big issue. Currently the XO can use two different battery technologies, a classic nickel metal hydride battery or a newer style lithium iron phosphate. The first goal with the battery was safety, to avoid the exploding battery problems that have plagued some laptop manufacturers in recent years. In this case, both technologies are considered very safe and the OLPC has done extensive heat testing for the systems.
Jepsen said that they also wanted to increase the life of the battery so they designed the battery to last over five years or 2,000 to 3,000 recharges. Of course the low power consumption of the system helps when it comes to how long a charge lasts. With the XO using on average 2 watts and the battery having a 20 watt hour span, the XO can easily go for 10 hours on a single charge. Jepsen also said that given the battery's low replacement cost ($10) they are considering including a spare battery with every system.
Another area that can be a power problem for laptops is wireless, with a typical wireless system in a laptop consuming around 10 watts. Jepsen said that the revolutionary wireless mesh technology in the XO uses .8 watts of power.
The wireless mesh of the laptop is easily identifiable by the rabbit ear antennas on the XO (which, when in the down position, protect the system's USB and audio ports and, when up, take the antennas out of the way of the system's electronics to boost range). The technology itself is based on the IEEE's 802.11f spec.
The wireless system turns every XO into a wireless router. This means that in a village or small town where the school is the only source of an Internet connection, each child in the village connects to each other and the Internet by connecting to other XO's. Jepsen said that in their tests at 10 hops from the source they were still getting a bandwidth of 2M bps per second. Also the range appears to be very good, with an XO connecting over 2.3 kilometers in what Jepsen admitted were ideal conditions (a flat plain).
While the XO may look like a kid's toy, it is many of these toy-like features that make it a very durable system. The OLPC realized that the laptops would be in rough environments and would be in situations where they would probably get dropped quite a bit. In test deployments in the developing world, the system has been very durable, often thanks to the many green bumpers and handles, which provide a lot of cushioning for the system and its display.
The rubber membrane keyboard is, of course, resistant to water and dirty hands. It is also designed to be easily swapped out to account for different languages and character sets.
Another concern for the XO is security. With these systems going into some admittedly rough areas, what's to stop them from being stolen or sold on the black market?
On the theft side, all XO's are shipped in an inactivated and non-functional state. When they arrive at the school or final destination, a trusted person on-site activates the laptops using a special USB key that they have been sent. If a system is subsequently stolen or lost, it is remotely deactivated and again becomes non-functional.
On the more standard side of security, the XO uses a system called Bitfrost that implements many of the best practices of security to limit the access rights of applications, files and users.
Click here to see screens of Sugar and its applications
With the XO, much of the attention tends to be paid to the hardware, which has the benefit of standing out because of its innovations and its low cost. On the software side, the Fedora Linux-based Sugar interface is commonly seen as an interesting adaptation of Linux, which is mainly used for simple applications and learning games.
However, once I had the chance to see Sugar in action in a real environment and running on the B4 XO's, I came away nearly as impressed with the innovations in the software as I was with the hardware.
The Sugar interface includes some extremely interesting capabilities for managing files, tasks and applications. Also, when combined with the wireless networking of the XO, the Mesh view in Sugar is one of the best and most innovative collaboration environments that I've ever seen.
The main Home screen of Sugar is a fairly basic environment where a user can launch applications and see which applications they have running. However, there's a good chance that, unlike a Windows or Mac desktop, users will spend very little time in the XO Home screen.
A good candidate for becoming the main interface for file and application management is the Journal application, which, according to OLPC President Walter Bender, essentially replaces the standard hierarchical file system browser.
"On the desktop we've tended to focus on the hierarchical, but it turns out that kids in particular, but also most of us, actually have a tight connection to temporal organization," Bender said. What the Journal does is automatically tracks and tags all activities, files and applications that a Sugar user has accessed, based on time. Its rich and customizable tagging make it possible to search and manage content in multiple ways but the Journal is primarily temporal, so if, for example, you were working on a program on Monday, it would be simple to go to that day and jump back into the project you were working on.
However, easily one of the most powerful features in Sugar is the Mesh view. Within this view, which can be accessed from a dedicated button on the XO keyboard or from a button in nearly every application in Sugar, users can see other users connected on the Mesh network, can see what they are working on, and can easily connect to and chat or share work with these users. For example, a teacher in a class could share a reading assignment simply by dropping the eBook onto the Mesh.
The Mesh can be sorted in multiple ways, including by task, by project, by groups and buddies or even geographically. Looking at the Mesh, I could easily see how an interface like it could be a huge asset in any corporate collaboration or project management tool.
Collaboration and sharing also is a big factor in multiple other Sugar applications. Using the XO's built-in camera and microphone users can easily jump into video or audio chats with other users. Bender said, "Anything that you're working on you can drop in a chat overlay and also use it for file sharing directly between people."
By default, all media in Sugar is saved in the open Ogg Vorbis format—though users will be able to import codecs if they choose—and the included players will support most common formats.
The bundled applications in Sugar include many of the usual suspects: a Firefox-based Web browser, a simple writing application, an RSS reader, an eBook reader, a drawing tool, and of course lots of learning games.
However, unlike some systems which tend to stick to either just dumbed-down interfaces or just advanced tools, Sugar applications span the whole range.
"One of the core ideas behind what we're trying to do with Sugar and the laptop is the idea of low floor, no ceiling," Bender said.
This means that the development tools bundled with Sugar include the simple Scratch environment all the way to Python. Or that the music creation tools go from the simple but fun TamTam music box to cSounds, an advanced sound programming language used in Hollywood.
Also, while I was at the OLPC offices I saw a number of developers working on new and interesting applications and games for Sugar. These included an advanced calculator that handled a number of functions, including word-based calculations, and a customizable matching game useful for classroom quizzes.
One of the cooler applications was one that took the microphone from the XO and used it as an analog data port, essentially turning the XO into an oscilloscope. Given the places it will be deployed, this could turn out to be an extremely valuable customization of the XO.
Like the OLPC project and the XO and in general, much of the focus of the Sugar effort is in giving kids and teachers the tools to grow and customize the applications and environments themselves. In many ways, this is the core power of computing. Yes, its great to use cool programs that others supply, but real learning and growth come from building new applications and tools.
"We're just going to be providing this core and then the kids and the teachers can be loading as many of these other packages as they want," Bender said. "Part of the idea is that they'll be making things but the core of reading, writing and arithmetic is all there."
This week the OLPC announced that the XO is finally going into mass production. In months, millions of the systems will begin to make their way to children around the world. We will finally see if the project can truly bring the change in opportunities and education that are needed by many children in every country of the world.
Will the XO change the world? That remains to be seen. Will it change the current state of technology? It already has.