The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project has confirmed it plans to include elements taken from the free Wikipedia online encyclopedia as a reference resource on its future $100 computers.

Headed by Nicholas Negroponte, the former head of the MIT Media Laboratory, OLPC aims to equip schoolchildren worldwide, particularly in developing nations, with their own laptops. The project was previously dubbed the '$100 laptop' initiative but of late it appears the first models will cost slightly more - $130.

"We've been aware of the OLPC project for some time," Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, said at the Wikimania conference. "We've been talking for a long time about how we might be able to help them with what they're doing."

He was careful not to characterise the move as a joint venture between Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit corporation that operates Wikipedia, and OLPC. Like any user of the online encyclopedia, OLPC can freely use Wikipedia's content, Wales said.

Walter Bender, president of software and content at OLPC, said that the organisation is experimenting with ways of loading pieces of the Wikipedia encyclopedia on to prototypes of the laptop. He expects the first finished versions of the device to ship in the first quarter of 2007.

Given that each laptop only has 0.5GB of flash memory and the encyclopedia is much larger in size, the device's mesh network would come into play so a child could have access to Wikipedia. Each laptop acts as a node in a mesh peer-to-peer ad hoc network, meaning that if one laptop is directly accessing the internet, when other machines power on, they can share that single online connection.

OLPC sees wikis as being proactive in the process of education. "A whole new generation can contribute to Wikipedia," Bender said. A child can learn a lot through the Wikipedia process of contributing and then critiquing, he added.

The laptop will also feature an ebook reader that includes a wiki so that children can share their thoughts on what they're reading, Bender said.

Responding to reports about various countries' interest in the laptop project, Bender said: "We have no signed commitment from any country." However, OLPC has been in serious discussions with the heads of a number of nations, notably Argentina, Brazil, Nigeria and Thailand. "A few others are still being discussed," he added.

At the moment, OLPC is identifying which Wikipedia content would make sense to offer in which countries and in which languages. For himself, Bender is a big fan of maps and "would love to see a great set of maps" available through the encyclopedia.

OLPC is also doing a lot of work around what kind of free courseware to provide on the laptops.