In the company of my young assistant Callum -- aged thirteen, writes PC games in his spare time, holds that the Help button is used only by wimps, and has already emailed Winchester College (which he is about to attend) to make sure that they have a computer-controlled milling machine he can use -- I have taken the battery out of my elderly Toshiba Satellite.
It is 70mm x 18mm x 170mm, weighs 630gms, and has a capacity of 2.8 ampere-hours at 12v, or 33.6 Watt-hours. It is thus something of a brute, lasts about 2 hours in the Satellite, and has an eco-impact -- when we include its disposal -- which I hardly care to think about.
Power consumption in computers is notoriously hard to measure and varies greatly according to what the machine is actually doing from minute to minute. My best guess is that the average laptop consumes between 90 and 120 watts (though a current magazine review of a 'multimedia' laptop quotes a battery life of only 67 minutes!)
Suppose we want to lower power requirement by an order of magnitude? We do this by, among other things: removing all the rotating bits (fans and disk drives); using a low-consumption screen such as Mary Lou Jepson's nice dual mode screen -- 0.1 Watts in standby, up to 1 Watt if fully backlit -- and in particular by specifying software which will allow the processor and other bits to drop back automatically into full 'resting' low-power mode when they're not actually doing anything.
This results -- hey ! -- in the OLPC XO. Which, so far as I can see from various articles here, has a target power consumption of 2 Watts (mean) but has so far reached 9 to 11 Watts. So it has indeed dropped by ten times compared with the average laptop. (Let us not forget, therefore, that, current political and commercial hoo-hah notwithstanding, the XO is a damn good little machine, excellently designed.)
The trouble is that it still needs quite a lot of infrastructure in order to keep its battery charged, small though the power required to do that may be. Hence the often gloomy estimates for its overall costs as part of an actual educational package.
Very well. But now let's suppose we were to reduce the power requirement for a hand-held machine by another order of magnitude, thus targeting a minimum of say 0.2 Watts, a mean over time of perhaps 0.5 Watts and a maximum of 1 Watt or so when running at full chat?
Ten times less than the X0, then, and one hundred times less than the 'standard' laptop? If we can do this, we've entered a whole new country. Because we can now power the machine directly from its own built in solar panel.
This means: no external electrical infrastructure. We still need a small battery, to smooth out the power supplied by the solar cell and to give us a short reserve in case we want to use the device after dark; but this can be very small indeed -- let's say a couple of AAA NiMH cells. Low initial cost, then, and a far smaller ecological imprint.
We can build such a machine, as I think I've shown. Its limitation will be that the 'computing' tasks it can perform will themselves be limited. We can forget the Internet, and forget Windows. The processing overhead -- the 'bloat' -- for these kinds of function will take its power requirement well over the sort of level we're talking about.
What we can make it do, and easily, is read books. That is to say, to perform the relatively simple task of taking pages out of static, low-powered memory, putting them, in colour and with pictures, onto a screen like Mary Lou Jepson's, and arranging -- as the XO does -- to drop the (cheap, slow, low-powered) CPU to 'go to sleep' while it isn't doing this or one of a few other simply tasks like reading a button or searching for a page to display.
To do this, our machine -- it will be a $50 I-Book Reader, and nothing else -- needs its own operating system, its own (very simple) interface, and a supply of illustrated books in colour, in a format tailored for use by that operating system and interface.
It will be, in fact, something like the Illumination E-Book Reader, or "I-Reader".
The books it reads will be Illumination books, in their own format, and occupying around a megabyte or less per book, for a 400-page textbook or a fully-pictorial comic book. So we can fit a thousand or so of these Illumination books, as a library, onto a nice little one-gigabyte card, which we can slot into the side of the I-Reader itself.
Of course, all it will do is read picture books from that library, and we can discuss for a long time whether this is enough to educate a poor and illiterate child, living without shoes or electricity on the edge of the jungle or a desert, or whether these modern times demand that we teach him to access the Internet or perform other 'computing' tasks.
I say that reading is enough. It's exactly what's needed. Far more importantly, its territory is the one Professor Negroponte intended when he set up the OLPC project, but whose children the revamped, all-singing, all-dancing XO will no longer reach.
You can see for yourself the kind of thing it will do for those children.
And, yes, when they have become literate -- with all which that implies in terms of raising their own living standards -- then of course it will be time for them to become computer-skilled as well, using OLPC's laptop.
The I-Reader is not intended to supplant the XO, but to lead up to it.