$100 laptop is no cheap throwaway

The laptop's design is eye-catching with its foldable "bunny-ear" antennas for wireless connections (OLPC) OLPC

Production of a $100 (SFr125) computer aimed at children in the developing world is set to begin, with Swiss designer Yves Béhar providing the finishing touches.

This content was published on February 15, 2007 - 10:27

Launched by Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of the MIT Media Lab, at the World Economic Forum summit in Davos two years ago, it is considered a vote of confidence in the future of these nations.

For Negroponte, the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) is an educational endeavour, and not a computer project as such. In his view distributing computers to schools has so far failed to give all children access to the benefits of the digital age.

Development has proceeded at a fast pace. Two years after the idea was launched, prototypes are being tested out in the field, thanks to the backing of industrial partners.

San Francisco-based Béhar was called in last March when the original design team ran into a series of problems. Negroponte wanted the Swiss specialist to help rethink the basics of the laptop and bring a fresh perspective to the project.

Power problems

The biggest problem faced by the laptop has been its power source, since it has to be useable in regions where electricity isn't a given. A crank handle was supposed to overcome this hurdle, but it turned out to be too fragile and also caused the computer to vibrate when it was turned.

The solution: the handle was dumped in favour of a string-driven generator. Pulling the cord for about six minutes gives the computer an hour's autonomy.

The laptop is supposed to be a learning tool, an encyclopaedia, a writing pad and a window on the world thanks to internet. A child should be able to take it anywhere, and students are expected to take good care of their own equipment.

"Technically speaking, it's anything but a cheap product, unlike most of those designed for developing countries," said Béhar. "It has unique aspects that are more advanced than any that can be found on computers ten times more expensive."

The screen for example is a novel liquid crystal display that passes from a colour image to black and white in strong sunlight, allowing users to keep on reading text without having to move.

But it's the computer's exterior that immediately attracts the eye.

"It's the project's ambassador," Béhar told swissinfo. "Whether you understand its scope, technical aspects or not, you are immediately attracted to the laptop."

Tough conditions

Compact, tough and fun to use, the computer is built to withstand desert heat or tropical humidity, but it is also the first designed specifically for children. The cost per unit is so far closer to $150 than $100, a price the foundation hopes will fall once bigger orders start coming in.

Critics have said that poor children in developing countries have more pressing needs than a laptop, and India, with its own computer industry to protect, has already refused to collaborate on the project.

But for Béhar, the OPLC project will give access to information in nations where it doesn't exist. He also believes that information is a prime requirement for societies to evolve.

"The project's value [further down the road] is to give access to democracy," he added.

The project foundation has already signed deals with states such as Argentina, Brazil, Libya, Nigeria, Rwanda and Uruguay.

Taiwan-based Quanta Computers will handle mass production, set to begin soon. It already builds laptops for companies including Dell, Apple and Hewlett Packard.


In brief

Each XO laptop will allow children anywhere to be connected both to one another and to the internet.

The machine features a 7.5-inch screen with a higher resolution than 95% of the laptops on the market today.

The device nominally consumes less than one tenth of what a standard laptop consumes.

The XO is about the size of a textbook and lighter than a lunchbox.

The laptop has soft, rounded edges. The integrated handle is kid-sized, as is the sealed, rubber-membrane keyboard.

It will use an open-source operating system such as Linux.

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Yves Béhar

Béhar studied design at the Art Center College of Design near Montreux, before completing his studies in California.

The 39-year-old then worked for the Silicon Valley-based firm that designed the Macintosh computer and the Swatch.

In 1997, he opened his own company, fuseproject, which currently employs over 30 people.

His clients include Microsoft, Nike, Samsonite and BMW.

Other achievements include giving the Birkenstock sandal a makeover.

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