On a desk in a messy office on the eighth floor of a building opposite the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sits a circuit board that might just transform education for millions of children around the world.
The board is the first prototype hardware for the ambitious One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project. Led by Nicholas Negroponte, chairman of OLPC and a co-founder of the MIT Media Laboratory, the project seeks to develop a $100 laptop computer for use by kids in their studies. The machine will be offered in bulk to governments and other organisations.
Project late, hits hurdles
The prototype's arrival in the US from Taiwan in early May represents a milestone. However, the project is already running late and several obstacles remain before computers start getting into children's hands.
The price of materials is one issue: the computer will use energy-saving flash memory rather than a hard-disk drive. Negroponte originally called for 1GB of memory but this has now been cut in half. Analysts had been skeptical that the team could afford a 1GB memory given the machine's target price of $100.
"I guess they were right," said Walter Bender, president of software and content at OLPC, in an interview. Bender joined the project earlier this year after serving as executive director of MIT's Media Lab from September 2000 until January 2006.
The project, which has changed its name to de-emphasise the $100 target price, says it expects the initial machines will cost about $130 and that they will come down in price over a few years to eventually cost around $80.
Processor power cut
Other changes include a cut in processor performance. Initially this was to have been a 500MHz Geode processor from project-supporter Advanced Micro Devices, but the current specification calls for a 400MHz chip. Bender said this the slower chip was easier to get hold of in quantity.
Perhaps the most significant change is in the screen. A projection screen was to have been used but a new and still-under-development type of LCD (liquid crystal display) that can be switched between a low-resolution colour mode and high-resolution monochrome mode is now planned. Bender said the new screen will be "kick-ass, cheap, super-efficient and beautiful" but development is yet to be completed.
No orders yet
A year ago, when interviewed in Tokyo, Negroponte said he expected to receive the first order in June 2005 and to have gathered orders for about six million machines by the end of that year. However, the group has yet to receive an order from any government.
One reason for the lack of orders is that the project is not officially accepting them until it has completed development of the prototype and set production plans, said Bender.
Bender showed the board running a version of Red Hat's Fedora Linux.
"What you're seeing is close to the final design," he said. "Very little is going to change on this board."
He expects to finalise the design late this year, and to begin production in the first quarter of 2007. A year ago, Negroponte said production would begin in 2006.
Strong step forward
Still, the arrival of the first prototype board, the product of several months work by Quanta Computer, marks a strong step forward for a project that many doubted would even make it this far.
The Taiwanese company is the world's largest maker of laptop computers and one of a number of supporters that has pledged to assist OLPC.
Other supporting companies include AMD, Brightstar, Google, News Corp, Nortel Networks and Red Hat. Last week Marvell Technology also confirmed it will work on WiFi networking for the computer.