The Children's Machine XO: Not The Only Low Cost Computer


While we debate the merits of the OLPC XO and how it might compare to the Classmate PC or the Mobilis in Brazil, do note that there are multiple low cost computing devices for the developing world.

Thankfully, the World Bank's infoDev group has developed a Quick guide to low-cost computing devices and initiatives for the developing world. To quote from their list:

These projects run the gamut from small research projects at universities to field-based experiments run by NGOs to commercial products from small start-ups and large multinationals.

Products are in various stages of development; while most are still in the prototyping and/or beta-testing stages, some are already in the market (and some, it should be noted, have been discontinued).

They come in many form factors: Some look like conventional PCs or laptops, others look more like PDAs or phones, and some are somewhere in between.

As you wander through the list, be sure to check out some of the more interesting and competitive ideas to One Laptop Per Child, such as:
  • E-DUC Projeto Caderno Digital ("digital notebook")
    Commercial [Brazil]
    Linux-based, low-cost PC project for the education sector in the Brazilian state of Paraná.
  • iT (ATM1088(L))
    Commercial [Brazil]
    Compact portable device from running Windows CE meant to be distributed free of charge to end users, through the support of sponsors (who 'own' various hotkeys on the device that directly connect users to specific web sites).
  • SolarLite PC
    status unknown
    Based on Open Hardware concept, SolarLite PC designs are meant to be provided royalty free so that individual countries or large organizations can manufacture low-cost computers for themselves in perpetuity.
Reading about each project (and working on a few personally), I don't see any that can compete with the OLPC technology like the clock-stopping hot dual-mode screen or Sugar UI. Yet many projects are very successful despite Frankenstein designs, because unlike the current (missing) OLPC implementation plan, they are community-focused, bottom-up initiatives adapting to, and integrating with the local operating environment.

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Thanks for the link to the infoDev list.

Some more food for thought:

Rob Enderle, who was one of the judges from AMD's recent "Change the World" contest, gives his take on the five finalists in that contest that "enlist[ed] professors from colleges and universities in Latin America to assemble student teams to create innovative systems designed to provide Internet connectivity to the people who need it. The solutions will consider the needs of local consumers as well as the regional challenges faced in deploying the systems, from networking infrastructure to product support."

(Note: You have to scroll down a little to find the relevant information; this piece is much more interesting than the AMD site for this contest itself.)

Here are a few more:

- Jhai is a bicycle powered PC104 machine for isolated villages in Laos.

- Municator is a low cost Linux computer using a Chinese processor.

Not to mention at least three brazilian projects (my own, "Cowboy" and one from SEMP-Toshiba and a local research lab).

The SolarLite project looks even more interesting for some countries (specifically, those with manufacturing capacity) than the OLPC project, even once you factor in power issues and the lack of a screen.

What it lacks is hype. Though as rational people we don't like to admit it, funding often comes as a result of hype.

I'd love to see the OLPC guys open up their design for any of these developing countries to use. Some of them might even make an industry out of selling cheap laptops back to first world consumers....

Not only is it lacking hype, it also seems to lack just about everything else. Two internet pages on a websites does not a cheap PC make.

That is of course if you are talking about

The unfortunate name does not lend well to googling as I tend to get sites on solar power and lights.

A Brazilian has created a spreadsheet comparing:

A server + 40 desktops for telecenter; olpc per student + server; classmate (or traditional) laptop per student + server, and he invites any comments to improve and update it.
The olpc is the cheapest so far, and it costs for each student day a small bread (0.1$).

Actually, these laptops are going to be "free" in the most important sense of the word. Tough to include that measurement in your economic calculations...

free laptops

Sorry, this link got stripped out from my last post ;-)

"these laptops are going to be "free" in the most important sense of the word."

Do explain Jonah, for you have me confused. The design was not free. The hardware is not free. The installation is not free. Not even all the OS is free. How might OLPC be "free" in any sense of the word?

Hi Wayan,

I did try to elaborate on this point more in my essay, which is linked to from this post -

Nothing super-radical. There are many senses to the word 'Free'. The Free Software and Free Culture movements have done a great job explaining that, it is clear from this site that you are familiar with those concepts.

So I am not sure why you downplay the freedoms that this project does represent - or is at least striving to capture. Software is a form of knowledge, and we ought to care how this knowledge is produced - who contributes to it, what is included, what is omitted, what metaphors are chosen, how are changes made. Free software projects have been refining these governance issues for years now, and OLPC is building on this heritage. There are incredibly important freedoms - freedom of control, freedom from oppression (as Paulo Freire understands oppression), freedom of expression, etc etc.

But this isn't just a simple reiteration of Stallman's evangelism. The organizational structure of this project is a model that should be considered in the context of free software projects, and especially understood in the context of the pedagogical philosophies and objectives that this project aspires to. These philosophies include being responsive to the needs of the community and incorporating their concerns into the process.

Does this help clarify what I am getting at?

I love the idea of free software, like "free speech". I even love the OLPC goal, and most of its methods to get there. What concerns me the most is that this isn't free hardware - its not "free beer" - and yet there is little if any recognition of that very real cost.

It cost millions to produce the hardware & software, OLPC is asking for Billions in start-up and running costs, and all we have to prove the effectiveness of the laptops in education is, as your essay says "faith".

Well, as I point out in my essay, it all depends on what you mean by education. We can't even agree on what we mean by that here.

But if you are making a cost-benefit analysis, you must consider the alternatives and take into account all of the potential benefits.

My earlier preparatory eessay really set the stage for the arguments I advance in the free laptop piece.

Even if these laptops really do cost billions of dollars (or 2x the cost of a comprable Microsoft CE unit), I think they are still worth it.