Intel's Dream: One Exploding Classmate PC Per Child


Remember last year's exploding laptop debacle? You may recall that both Dell and Sony had to recall in an incredible number of faulty batteries and battery adapters that had the annoying habit of bursting into flames. We would all like to think that the computer industry has learned from this mistake but if Intel gets its way, kids all around the world will get their very own exploding Classmate PC.

olpc health
One laptop is a dog

Hello again, this is Will Ahdoot to tell you more about Intel's Classmate PC. Before I go on, OLPC News readers should know that I am not affiliated with OLPC or any large software or hardware company. I believe that Intel deserves to be held to the same level of scrutiny as OLPC.

OLPC has gone to great pains to make sure the XO laptop meets the most exacting environmental standards and is kid-safe. You may agree 100% with me on that last sentence but after reading this article, I think you will agree that they are doing a far better job in these regards than Intel.

So you want to provide laptops to poor kids in the developing world? Then you best develop a laptop that is safe and stable where most of those kids live: hot and humid countries. Sure there are poor kids in Mongolia and Siberia but not many compared to Africa, Asia, and Latin America. For this reason OLPC has chosen LiFePo4 batteries that are stable at much higher temperatures and levels of physical mistreatment than your typical Lithium Ion (Li-Ion) battery in most laptops today.

So does Intel follow OLPC's example and choose a battery chemistry that is safe in the conditions you would find in a typical Brazilian or Nigerian school? Of course not! Intel wants to maintain market dominance over AMD, not help kids. Intel is using your traditional 6 cell Lithium Ion battery, typical of most commercial laptop computers.

According to and probably your commercial laptop's safety manual:

Do not place the battery in direct sunshine, or use or store the battery inside cars in hot weather. Doing so may cause the battery to generate heat, rupture, or ignite. Using the battery in this manner may also result in a loss of performance and a shortened life expectancy.

Special precautions must be taken to avoid Li-Ion battery fire up or explosion that can cause serious injuries. This is because Lithium when comes in contact with water or air's moisture burns violently. Never try to extinguish such a fire with water! but only with suitable extinguisher.

Do not strike the battery with a hammer, step on the battery, or otherwise subject it to strong impacts or shocks. Do not expose the battery to water or salt water, or allow the battery to get wet.

olpc health
Coming to a kid near you
Now, adults like myself are careful not to subject our own laptops to such stresses. But I think there is a pretty strong chance that those Classmate PCs will some how come into contact with water, high temperatures, humidity, and will get stepped on many times after Intel hands them out to kids in Brazil, Africa, and Asia.

Also, there is bad news about charging Lithium-Ion batteries with alternative energy sources such as pedal-power:

Should be careful not to charge them too quickly, otherwise the lithium can become over-energized and unstable.
Devices like pedal-power, diesel generators, and other devices that use kinetic energy to produce electrical energy don't generate a nice, stable flow of current. In fact, the electrical grids in many developing countries aren't so predictable either.

Li-Ion batteries also tend to lose their charging capacity faster when charged at high temperatures and high humidity. Lithium Ion batteries irreversibly lose approximately 20% capacity per year at a typical 100% charge level at 25 C from the time they are manufactured, even when unused. They lose even more capacity when charged at higher temperatures (6% at 0 C, 20% at 25 C, 35% at 40 C).

Daytime highs for the summer average around 33C in Bangkok, 34C in Islamabad, and 33 C in Manaus, located at the headwaters of the Amazon in the Brazil. A kid in Manaus can roughly expect his Classmate battery to power his Linux Classmate for 2 hours in the first year, 80 minutes the second year, and 50-60 minutes the third year! Of course, this generously assumes his Classmate PC doesn't explode in his lap first.

olpc health
Fouled by exploded Classmate PC's

I wonder what will happen to all those exploded Classmate PCs and exhausted batteries that Intel hopes to hand out to kids in Manaus and other parts of Brazil. I am sure a good number of them will end up in the Amazon and other Brazilian waterways.

While OLPC has met the demanding EPEAT environmental standard for electronics and is working on a recycling plan, I can't find anything about a similar plan for the Classmate PC.

I don't want Intel to drop out of this market. I want to see a beneficial competition between OLPC and Intel but the Classmate PC just doesn't meet the needs of kids in the developing world. The Classmate PC doesn't seem to be a legitimate rival to the XO but rather a scam, perpetrated by Intel to maintain its market dominance.

Hey Intel! It's time for you to lift your Veil of Secrecy and let us know what you're really up to.

Related Entries



While I agree with you that LiPeFo4 represents a great advance in battery technology for the developing world, it seems that OLPC is going to be Intel-like in their battery choice. Here are Ethan Zuckerman's notes on Nicholas Negroponte's OLPC speech Friday night:

"two major changes that I noticed in his slides. Because of the rising cost of nickel, the machine is now using Lithium Ion batteries instead. The decision to use nickel metal hydride was designed to allow batteries to be charged by human power as efficiently as possible - lithium batteries are more difficult to trickle charge."

Will, while your concerns about battery performance sound quite valid, your bit about explosiveness of the Classmate is rather overdone. Not getting into the fact that the exploding batteries were made by a specific supplier that has since corrected its manufacturing procedures and changed all batteries, or that the actual cases of exploding computers have been fewer than the tone of your piece suggests, you're accusing Intel of being a market hog (nothing new) but also an insincere corporation that doesn't care at all about not only the wellbeing of children but not even their safety.

This approaches sensationalism instead of just passionate criticism.

Fast-charging of batteries is necessary in order to take advantage of the 20W that the pull rope generator may put out. There is a switching supply in the XO that can accommodate a range of input voltages. Usually battery charging circuits condition the power in order to charge the battery efficiently. That fastest that you can charge a battery is at 1C where C is the capacity of the battery. For example a 20Watt-hour battery can be charged with a source of 20Watts for about an hour. This requires very careful temperature monitoring in order to make sure that internal resistances do not cause heating and incineration.. It is interesting that the original XO batteries were specified at a little over 16 watt hours. The LiFe batteries have an energy capacity according to the olpc wiki, of over 20 watt hours. Fast charging of batteries also has a deleterious effect on the usable life of the batteries. Ambient temperature is also a concern when one is fast-charging a battery.

Wayan: Ethan's blog doesn't specify whether OLPC will use LiFePo4 (also Lithium) or Li-Ion batteries. I wager that OLPC will still use LiFePo4 batteries. LiFePo4 batteries don't use nickel and they are much more stable than regular Lithium Ion batteries. Rising nickel prices wouldn't explain a switch from LifePo4 to Li-Ion batteries.

Eduardo: The title of my article is sensational but the content is not. Lithium Ion batteries (not LiFePo4) are not that stable, particularly in hot, humid climates. W/ its $1 billion spent on research for the Classmate, Intel could have made a much more intelligent choice of battery chemistries.

There haven't been that many exploding laptops but nor have laptops w/ Li-Ion batteries been in the conditions that Intel intends to put the Classmate PC.

Further, as far as I can tell Intel really doesn't have any kind of recycling plan for the Classmate.

Intel is not evil but it is good at making microprocessors not end-user goods. That is not something it does well. This is very obvious in its poor handling of the Classmate PC.

From this week's OLPC Update:

6. Batteries: MIT Materials Science Professor Sadoway visited OLPC this week to discuss battery chemistry Mary Lou, Richard Smith, and John Watlington. As a result of his visit we are investigating our own tests of charging LiFeP at higher ambient temperature, as well as sampling, lifetime recycling.

Doesn't sound like they have abandoned LiFeP batteries.

And now we have a battery type correction from Ethan Zuckerman:

"Dr. Negroponte emailed to correct me: the new generation of machines will not be using Lithium Ion, but Lithium Iron Phosphate (LiPeFo4), a battery technology that is not yet in wide use, but has some characteristics which could be especially appropriate for the XO machine.

Specifically, the batteries tend to deliver less heat than Lithium ion and are much more resistant to explosion if misused. It’s unclear whether they are easier to charge using human power than Lithium ion. Dr. Negroponte tells me that OLPC’s partners will be building a factory specifically to produce the LiPeFo4 batteries."

thats the thing... criticize this laptop and intel says, what are you a communist? you hate competition? competition is great.....

but no one hates competiton more than intel. i've been following intel and AMD since the K6 days, and the crazy mafia tactics theyve used have contantly boggled my mind. undermining this project at first with words and then with the classmate, is bad but not as bad as some other stuff.

intel's first order of business is seldom to actually compete, its normally, to DESTROY the competition. do what it takes. amd and intel both used to sell flash memory, so intel would price dump flash to hurt amd. they would intimidate amd's partners into not working with them. they would doctor the benchmarks, bribe the hardware sites. they would do whatever they could do and get away with. right now, this is sort of an exceptional time, intel has real product, and they're under scrutiny because of amd's lawsuit over their mafia tactics.... but they're still doing majorly shady stuff.

but my point is really that theyre using compeition as a justification for something inherently anticompetitive.

"A kid in Manaus can roughly expect his Classmate battery to power his Linux Classmate for 2 hours in the first year, 80 minutes the second year, and 50-60 minutes the third year!"

What a joke. So does that mean there will be only two hours of computer use a day in class, and then they will all be put on chargers? And if the children use them outside class, they will all have to be put in chargers in class for a couple of hours the next morning before they can be used? Or will all the desks in class have to be wired so they can be run off of mains power?

The problem is that Intel skimped on development money. They were cheap so they just took a regular laptop and made it smaller, with the consequence it has a smaller battery. Unfortunately the components like the cpu, display, and memory did not decrease in power demand nearly as much, so you wind up with a laptop whose uptime on a charge is simply too short.

Oplc took the right approach. They knew they needed a laptop with much better power characteristics, so they wipped the slate clean and designed one from the bottem up.

By following your way of reasoning, Automakers should not sell cars in developed countries, because, you know running on gasoline they could explode.

I understand that Li-ion batteries are dangerous, but any battery is, by its very definition. When you concentrate energy into a such small volume, you may have a potential hazard. Regular alkaline batteries (AAA, AA and such) are dangerous although not as powerful. Li-ion are used in almost all cell-phones including those sold in developing countries. Why are we not blaming them?

So although I absolutely agree in Intel's poor design and implementation of the Classmate, I don't see any evil. They could have done a much better job. But please let's try to be more objective and less emotional about the discussion.

Hello Will and all

-- I think it's pretty much the case that OLPC, having had the original notion, was also able to take its time over design and similar matters; whereas all the other entrants have a slight air of panic --- "OLPC has created this simply huge 'market', We Must Get A Piece Of It, Quick Quick, what have we got that we can adapt for a cheapo laptop . . . ?"

Naturally, this doesn't produce a well-thought-out machine, and I expect we shall see several (if not lots) more of them.


Incidentally, the more I read of this site, the more I become convinced that we are talking about two entirely separate (though linked) concepts here.

One ids the all-singing, all-dancing (though still cheap, and well-designed) laptop PC for the established, even if still primitive, classrooms of the Third World; where, yes, it's super if the kids can access the Internet, download streaming video, play music etc --- and "if we can provide all this for a mere few dollars more (and a few watts more) than the basicx" then yes, good idea;

-- but the other (and I remind you, the original) arena is the millions of children, and adults, who have only sporadic access to classrooms and teachers and even electricity, but for whom we still need to provide knowledge, inspiration, all that stuff.

The string-pullers. Let us, please, not forget the string pullers.

And what they need are books, plain and simple, words and pictures, just as they have for centuries, and they need these things on 0.1 Watt unbreakable piece of gear.


And, if OLPC does not --- forgive me --- get off its collective backside and provide such a machine, AS WELL AS, NOT INSTEAD OF, THE XO, then I will do so.

That's a promise. You heard it here. It's going to happen, because I think it essential and no-one so far has convinced me otherwise.

Believe it.

Cheers and love, Martin

Hi Martin,
OLPC's XO laptops bring not only books to the kids but also internet access for their exploration of knowledge and various telecommunication methods for sharing their findings and the products of their creativity. All these are essential ingredients of a modern learning method called constructionism that promises to correct the unnatural traditional teaching method. What's wrong with the traditional teaching method? We all went through it and got educated by it. So it cannot be that bad then? Yes, I'm afraid it is that bad!

The natural way of learning - as every child does until it enters school - is by lots of experimenting and learning from its (frequently wrong) results. Adults often mistakenly consider this as idle playing or fooling around. Kids have no problem with being wrong. They give it a shot and anotherone and so on until they reach what they wanted. This experimenting often lets kids not only find the right results but also lets them understand why it is right. Their motivation to keep trying is either that they want to do things themselves, to become more independent, or it is their natural curiosity about how things work and how they can use them for their purposes. In both cases learning is driven by a positive motivation to reach desired goals (desired by the kids).

In traditional school (and later in jobs) the whole system is unnaturally turned upside down. Being wrong is now punished. Therefore experimenting is no valid way of learning anymore. Instead of actively finding out how things work they are now taught what is right by an adult which is a passive role for the kids. The passivity is even enforced by rules to sit still and be quiet. The motivation to achieve learning goals desired by adults has now become a negative motivation to avoid mistakes, avoid failing in exams and avoid delayed promotion. Learning has become a defense against artificially introduced threats. Often it is sufficient for the kids to memorize instead of understanding their lessons in order to overcome those threats. In the end many children have lost their ease about being wrong, their joy in experimenting, their curiosity and their independent thinking. Those few, who have preserved these capacities, have done it in spite of school not because of it.

The main motivation behind OLPC is to install a learning method that encourages to actively learn and understand by experimenting and being wrong, by actively exploring new fields of knowledge, by being creative in all fields of learning and by sharing the products of their creativity with others kids in order to be inspired by them and to learn from them.

I explained this in such length in order to show that the OLPC XO is not just a little more sophisticated children's laptop like many others. It is a electronic learning tool for a whole new, revolutionary learning method.

Unfortunately OLPC's XOs cannot be afforded by the poorest of countries. Probably OLPC has to wait for even lower prices hopefully made possible by large scale distribution (100 millions of XOs?) in few years in order to bring it to poorer countries. But probably never to the poorest.

Now, Martin, when you propose an even cheaper and more energy efficient device for those poorest countries this is a noble cause. My question is: Is it really necessary to strip the device of the new style learning method in order to make it affordable to the poorest. Is there no way to keep the essential communication functionality on board? Would it not be worthwile to spend a few dollars and few fractions of watts more to provide this valuable new learning method also to the poorest? This is the real design challenge! How could this be done?

Martin: Most educational research shows that kids learn best then they are actively involved in learning. OLPC is about getting education of the highest-quality to poor kids, not second-best access. You as an inventor must know that experimentation or "playing" a some call is the best way to understand something and build upon it.

I am glad you are going develop the e-book reader. I will be one of the first people to buy it.

I am sorry to say this but those who argue most vehemently in favor of reading paper books over reading on a computer tend to be older. They also tend to have ample access to paper books themselves. Young people like myself, on average, are comfortable doing their reading on a computer, esp. those things we couldn't afford to buy in paper versions, like the Guardian, New York Times, or great science fiction.

Hi Wlll and Roland and all

I fully agree with a great deal of what you say about the nature and efficiency of education, and about the stultifying effect of emphasis upon rigid frameworks and (especially) the avoidance of erroe rather than the encouragement of experiment; but I still think you're taking a step beyond the basics of learning.

I am after all a grandparent and have just piloted three grandchildren through the learning of literacy through -- what else? -- reading to them in bed, from a book.

( Lemony Snicket as it happens, about whose use of 'grown-up language' I was at first a bit dubious but to which Luke, Hannah and Cameron have taken as a duck to water. )

But all of them have learned -- from me and from their parents, my children -- in the old, old way of hearing the words, looking at the pictures, reading the words for themselves, and asking "What does exuberant mean, Grand-dad Martin?"

And of course they also have television available to them, and watch it; and, yes, they do understand a lot of the world beyond their windows from looking at polar bears and penguins on the screen --- but they can, and do, also learn these things merely from pictures in plain old books.

Now that they're off to school, of course I hope they will find teachers who don't constrict them, and all of that.

But before school -- and that is where the millions of children of the Third world are, those I have termed 'the string-pullers', at whatever age -- they will have begun the process of learning from plain old words and pictures, too.

Furthermore: even when they have learned to read in this fashion, and also interacted, there are two more circumstances in which the written word alone, without additions, can achieve what interaction, video aids and constructionism cannot.

One of these is where what is being learned is quite simply too difficult, abstruse or unfamiliar to have yet been made available to constructionism. If you want to learn about thirteenth-century Flemish art, you will probably need to have looked at a book on the subject; as is also true, by the way, if you want to design a computer and need to look at a few plain old circuit diagrams.

And this point leads in turn to another case, which is that of the search for, and the finding of, beauty rather than pure knowledge. Which is found more commonly on paper than elsewhere, I believe, and at all levels; Jemima Puddle Duck is a creation transferred from one person's mind to 'paper', not to multimedia, because that is the commonest way for beautiful things to arrive.

* * *

" . . . And nothing I cared, at my sky-blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden follow him out of grace;

And nothing I cared, in the lamb-white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow-thronged loft by the shadow of my hand
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that, riding to sleep, I should hear him fly the high fields
And wake to the farm forever lost to the childless land.

Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea."

* * *

( Not, I concede, the only way; but it's both remarkable and significant that we have far fewer works of beauty in these days of technical excellence than we used to have when people chiselled stone, put paint on canvas, and wrote poetry? Yes, there are beautiful films; but the availability of film cameras has not increased the rate at which beauty is created, over and above the availability of pen and ink, has it?)

Cheers, and love


( I'd just like to remind you that I'm a film and TV writer as well as a novelist -- merely because I don't want to get labelled as an ancient person stuck in the pre-modern age and hence incapable of understanding what's available ! )

( But, again, and it has only just struck me:- The film starts, doesn't it, with a script . . . ? )

Bloody Welshman. Bloody, argumentative, drunken Welshman.

But, you see.

Love, M

of course I was never saying that the written word - be it prose or poetry - should not be used in education anymore. I was just saying that education should not be limited exclusively to the written word anymore. There are more and equally important media to be used beside text.

I absolutely agree that there is educational value in discovering beauty in language. But I am sure that you - being a screen writer - will also agree that beside reading good texts expressing your thoughts in your own language and sharing it with others is at least as educational. And it would be a pity if a learning device would not also support that.

although it is not really meaningful I like the following question:
If the high priests of language like Shakespeare, Goethe, Tolstoy et al had the choice between an XO laptop connected to the world or paper, ink and snailmail or an e-book-reader with all books of the world but no connection what would they have preferred and why?


By no means a meaningless question. And of course my belief is that they'd all have picked paper and ink without hesitation.

Is that your answer, or does it, perhaps, indicate an almost instinctive difference between our respective lines of thought?

I repeat that I don't take an innately distrustful view of the XO nor the constructivism which it serves. It would be easy to take such a view, even to do so on the 'all this modern rubbish . . ." etc level; to be, in fact, an old fogey. (Which is quite certainly my delightful other-half Brenda's view; I can hear her saying it right now!)

But, just as you don't denigrate the plain written word, so I don't denigrate constructivism.

It's only that there are two levels of learning at which it's inappropriate; at one end, the first steps towards literacy at the words-and-pictures level and, at the other end of the scale, the transmission of pure beauty, advanced thought and technically-complex instruction manuals.

And, in between, the whole of a person's education CAN be undertaken via the written word and pictures, even if we argue that interaction may do the job better.

Put it like this, Roland: you are plainly a very highly educated person, as am I. I imagine that you may have used more modern equipment than just books?But I didn't, and the walls of my house are of course lined with hundreds of books.

And, from another viewpoint: I am a doctor, and you certainly can't learn to be a doctor from books alone. Gray's Anatomy is about it (and highly tedious and exacting too, even if you do actually have to know the innervation and blood supply of the gastrocnemius muscle!) But the rest -- amounting to 90% plus -- is interaction with the people who are teaching you to take out somebody's appendix or diagnose what's the matter with their chest.

( And yet, even here, what do we do a lot of? We stick the X-ray into its clip on the backlit board and look at it. Read it, in other words, as we read the path report which accompanies it. )


I think that part of what's happening here between you and me is a result of the computer age itself. I do tend, not deliberately to discount, but actually to forget, the value and use of multimedia. The computer-literate person, similarly, actually forgets how often the plain old flat-surface-with-marks-on-it is used, every day.


But it isn't actually these philosophical matters which truly concern me and make me certain that the book is more necessary than the laptop; it's the string-pulling.

Show me the 'mean 0.1 Watt' XO and half my objections (though, still, not all of them) are answered.

Cheers, Martin (it's four in the morning. There's virtue for you)

"By no means a meaningless question. And of course my belief is that they'd all have picked paper and ink without hesitation."

I only know about Geothe well enough to take an educated guess. The facts that he scientifically investigated the physics of colors (although his conclusions were wrong) and that he had delivered himself an elephant's head and dissected it both show that he was curious, liked to experiment and explore new fields of knowledge and had no fear of being wrong. And it's obvious that he liked to express himself. Many of his letters are literature now. So he also loved to communicate, share and exchange. So my guess is that he would have loved the XO.

"It's only that there are two levels of learning at which [constructivism using computers] is inappropriate; at one end, the first steps towards literacy at the words-and-pictures level and, at the other end of the scale, the transmission of pure beauty, advanced thought and technically-complex instruction manuals."

I don't see why paper and ink should be more appropriate at those levels. A laptop can do everything paper and ink can and more.

"And, in between, the whole of a person's education CAN be undertaken via the written word and pictures, even if we argue that interaction may do the job better."

Yes education can be done just with books. But why should it be limited to books if there are valuable supplements.

"I imagine that you may have used more modern equipment than just books? But I didn't, and the walls of my house are of course lined with hundreds of books."

You are using modern equipment when you're writing to this blog. I also own lots of books. But I wish I had all of them in digital form so I could carry them with me and share sections of it when I communicate. There are very few of my books I would refuse to give away in exchange for a digital copy.

"The computer-literate person, similarly, actually forgets how often the plain old flat-surface-with-marks-on-it is used, every day."

Well, a laptop as well as your proposed e-book-reader would also have a flat-surface-with-marks-on-it to read from. My argument is not against reading. It is against limitation to only reading.

"Show me the 'mean 0.1 Watt' XO and half my objections (though, still, not all of them) are answered."

The point with power is not to stay below 0.1 Watt whatsoever. The aim is to keep the power low enough to enable a device to run on human power. This is still possible with 0.5 Watts and with 1.0 Watts and even with 2.0 Watts. Wouldn't that give us enough contingency to include more than just reading text and still pictures in your proposed device?


Forgive me, but I fear you have started being a little dense again! (Or are pretending to be ??)

The argument, surely, is not about paper vs machine, but about pictures and words on a plain flat surface vs multimedia, webcams, interaction, etc etc . . .

So, for instance: of course we can produce a beautiful image or sequence of images on the screen of a laptop rather than on paper. I did so, with Dave Pinnell, my artistic director, in A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, on diskette, in 1992. It uses the sceen of my PC merely as a flat surface, from which to read and look at images, thus treating my PC exactly as if it were a book.

In order to experience A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, I can throw away roughly 90% of my PC's capabilities, 90% of its RAM and disk space, its keyboard and mouse, its processor power . . . .

I need these things for other activities, but not for book-reading. Those other activities may be useful and desirable, but they are not necessary in the sense that book-reading is necessary.

When a person can read --- and not until then -- of course that person will, in this digital age, immediately switch to using a laptop. Of course they will. Why not? So the XO is a highly useful bit of gear.

BUT IT COSTS NINE HUNDRED DOLLARS over its life (as estimated here)


The current output of the string-pull generator is 1 watt mean (again as estimated here, I am not biassing my figures to make a point.)

I put it to you that you are going to need to be damn devoted to computing to perform more than an hour of string pulling for an hour of computing? Sorry, but that's ludicrous.

The children whom OLPC started out to serve need, firstly and vitally, a cheap, light, robust, even a throwaway book reader which lets them carry four hundred books instead of one.

THEN, LATER, they need the XO.

Distribute the XO but not the Reader and all you are doing is building a cheapo classroom PC. That's worthy, but it isn't exactly novel -- which of course accounts for the current, boring, commercial battle being fought by MS, OLPC, Intel, Red Hat, any moment now Apple, etc etc etc. Upon a battleground with which all the players are already familiar and for which the tactics are well understood without straining the mind . . .

You know. "Your Batteries Are Dangerous And Mine Aren't". That battle. "Look at the pretty little girls clustered around my screen, all nicely dressed." That one.

Dull, Roland. Dull, dull, dull.

Cheers and love, Martin

The whole argument between paper and computer realy is moot.

If you look at modern authors, they tend to switch to electronic writing. However, if you look closely, you will see that that depends on the time between writing and publishing. Think about it, writing is used to communicate.

A long lead time generally gives writers the time to think and formulate carefully. That means that writers have to SEE and STUDY what they have written. Handwriting (ink) can help here, and some writers do write like artists sketch.

Journalists, who work against deadlines, on the opposite side, type in their materials as fast as possible, just to get it mailed to the publisher in time. They just don't have the time to write out their works on paper in full.

Many children with a computer work in between. They have a diary in ink and paper, and write their homework assignments on the computer.
(and really, dad, we MUST have a color printer or else I get lower grades :-) )

Knowing children, they really live in IM/email space. So a book reader that can do IM and email will be infinitely more attractive (and useful) than one that can't.


Hello Winter --

"Knowing children, they really live in IM/email space. So a book reader that can do IM and email will be infinitely more attractive (and useful) than one that can't."

No, they don't, Winter. They really. really, don't -- at least not the children whom OLPC is reputedly addressing. Those children live in a swamp, a forest, on the margins of a desert.

They have no electricity, Winter, let alone a connection to the InterNet. Which they do not, right now, need.


I tell you what : I am almost at the point of despair where this discussion is concerned.

It is no wonder -- I now see -- that the entire OLPC concept has been effectively hijacked by, excuse me, the computer-geek world. Of which I am myself a member; but I do remember, every now and again, that there are tens of millions of people in the real world out there without shoes, let alone computers. The computer-geek world, though, cannot (apparently) see this simple fact. It is wearing a blindfold, woven from technology.

Hence the rise and fall of the Nile. Or, to put it in less literary a fashion: forget OLPC; it has turned into an arena for enthusiasts for this or that processor, this or that piece of battery technology, this or that philosophical approach to secondary-school education.

Who cares?

I am now going to be impolite, and then depart and trouble everyone no further. With, I should add, much regret.

If this discussion is the product of education in the Digital Age then that education, it is plain to see, has almost entirely failed. It has neither stimulated nor nurtured the imagination; it has stifled it.

Exactly, I may say, as could have been predicted.

Cheers and love,

Martin Woodhouse

I have so far enjoyed the discussion which has in some respects missed a lot of the real meaning behind what OLPC are trying to do.

While the esteemed Martin Woodhouse has in good faith put forward the 'book reader' as the cure for the uneducated poor in third world countries he has failed to see the purpose behind the push for constructivism. The book reader is really just a computer with a few simple buttons rather than a full keyboard. It has all the same circuitry but may not need as powerful a processor. It simply displays written text, maybe pictures? possibly more? Animations maybe? Who knows.

Now take the XO laptop with Sugar or a Classmate with a cut down XP version. Its not just a passive device, displaying pages of text. The XO has activities! It has a web browser, a word processor for children to write with. It has Tam Tam for the creation of music, possibly even symphonies of XO laptops working in unison.

Surely for the extra price (is $175 too much compared to a $50 book reader?) the young students have a tool that is incomparable to any other teaching aid.

Oh and as to the original topic - exploding batteries? They'll be lucky to even charge them, never mind over-charging.

I am not dense just persistent. And I am - just as you - surprised that you can not (want not ?) see my point.

Your string pulling argument is not fully valid. First of all your proposed device would also need string pulling. So it is just a question of how much. When an XO is used in book reading mode (i.e. screen in black and white mode, CPU mostly switched off, WLAN switched off) it also consumes around 0.5 Watt (don't know the exact figure). So the string pulling should not be that bad. So there remains the cost of $175 which is admittedly prohibitive for many of the poorest countries.

However my argument in all my posts with you is not so much for the XO and against your e-book-reader. It is indeed for your e-book-reader but with communication capabilities aboard (may well be very limited comm. compared to an XO) at the cost of a few bucks more and a few more fractions of a Watt. That communication may also be switched off while only reading.

Why does this seem so unacceptable to you?


maybe Martin's e-book-reader could do without a keyboard by just having a virtual keyboard on its touch screen. The question is what of XO's capabilities could be stripped completely or simplified in order to combine Martin's idea of an affordable device for the poorest and OLPC' idea of supporting constructivistic education.

Another important idea of Martin's is payment over time (Martin proposed it via e-books) but with communication on board it could also be via usage time e.g. in monthly chunks using a prepayment model like with cell phones. The governments might pay let's say 90% of those prepayments and the users 10% to make sure they actually use it or if not give it to someone else. That would liberate the poor countries from large upfront payments for the purchase of the devices. And the usage rate would give clues to the producer whether it s worthwile to supply more devices.

Roland --

The idea of added communications isn't unaceptable to me at all. It just requires a whole lot of stuff which isn't likely to lying around.

The Web. Hence, a Web browser. Hence, Windows or its equivalent. Hence, a vastly more powerful CPU than is needed for reading, plus, a lot more memory, and before we know it we've got back to the XO laptop. Which is very diffcult to power by hand. And which requires a server somewhere around the place too. Plus a wireless link to that server . . .

The reader I propose does not require there to be a computer within a thousand miles, any more than the paperback book you're carrying requires one.

It's just that the reader I propose is the equivalent of anywhere up to a thousand books, all being carried by one small child.


And:- It's not a choice between the XO and the Reader.

It's a choice between having stuff to read, and thus becoming literate and then educated, and having nothing to read whatever and remaining in the mud of ignorance.

Cheers, Martin


do you have a mock-up or working prototypes, a proof of concept? I'd be interested to take a look at, for genuine reasons. Do you plan to have it as an open platform, so people can develops apps for it? Also I'd be interested to see the release strategy of the reader and of the ebooks.


Hello Nick

Prototype? Prototype? I don't even have a CPU yet, mate, going to have to get it made, right? Got to consume v. v. few milliwatts at full chat, yes? All that.

Never fear, however. As you will see from my Web site, building computers which don't exist yet, from designs scribbled on the old shirt-cuff (and especially machines in which few people -- except for discerning ones such as yourself -- have any belief) is what I do.

Part of it, anyway.

Illumination won't be open-platform, no. It will be given away free, but not its source code.

But that's because it only does one thing, and only ever will : namely, put coloured pixels on a screen in patterns which either form text, in any font or indeed character-set you like, or pictures. It's a book reader, you see.

Nothing else. So there's no virtue in encouraging additions --- though I dare say we will look carefully, appreciatively and even gratefully at suggestions as to its improvement in this single task.

Write to me off-board and I will very happy indeed to chat to you about any aspect of this function.

Cheers and love,


thanks that you returned to our debate.

Between your e-book-reader and the XO there is the class of devices called PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants, aka. palm tops). The following link lists many PDAs and at least one e-book-reader all running with free Linux.

Retail prices are about $200-$500. But lets not forget that retail prices for laptops are $1000-$2000 and still the XO could reduce it to $175 with few limitations and even some improvements over retail devices. I could imagine that something similar is possible with PDAs. Yes, PDAs include a graphical user interface with a touch screen, a stronger CPU than a e-book-reader and some form of communication be it WLAN or cell phone network, which are often available even in poor countries, or the future WIMAX a kind of fusion of WLAN and cell phone that will spread fast (

There are already several versions of Linux including browsers, e-mail and other apps for PDA's. So no new development "just" adaptation is necessary. If OLPC's strategy would be applied to this class of devices you might also reach the $50 level and below. And I doubt that the power consumption would be a serious obstacle if all idle subsystems could be turned off during reading.

Hello Roland

Agree with many of your suggesions, but isn't the trouble with PDA's etc their small screen size? Or am I out of touch here? (Quite possible!)

I envisage something which we ought not even to call a 'computer', really, since doing so is what has shifted us from our original intention and embroiled us in this whole "cheap PC" argument instead.

A book reader, in my view, is exactly that and nothing more. It is an electronic equivalent of your morning paper, or of the best-selling paperback you're reading in the train (or indeed of the billboards you have seen from your train window.)

Its only difference from these is the fact that it holds five hundred or a thousand of those books, newspapers, brochures, girlie magazines. manuals, or whatever. It has few links to The Wonderful World Of Computing ---- for which let us thank God or Providence (whichever).

Cheera and love


Thanks, Martin. By open, I referred to open to external applications, not necessarily open source. You should be more open regarding your device, though. Why, again, limiting that device to do just one thing? Why, say, limiting the possibility I can find a use for it for a completely different functionality from what it was intended? Providing SDK, would allow some sort of creativity, to such device.

It's been done before, in fact. Look at what they did with the original Palm Pilot. It wasn't more than a book reader (it was in fact much less than that), but great apps were written, opining up a new world of possibilities. I would love to see your device being a "Palm Pilot" for developing countries. It can be as limited as you please in terms of hardware (to reduce power consumption), but it should nevertheless be open to accept new functionality.

I am not trying to be confrontational with you, Martin. I am just try to look at your device from a different perspective.

I think maybe we should go beyond the book reader concept and consider the portable DVD player. These are produced in such quantity that they sell for under $50 now. Far more entertaining and with a ready supply of movies the third world could be entertained enough to forget about hunger and wars.

Imagine those classics like 'Gone With The Wind' being watched by a family in a hut where the only light at night is the glow of the DVD player.

Could not the pull-cord charger be used for an evening of movie watching. Family members could take turns charging it up. With DVD writeable disks being so cheap I could see people in rich countries providing content to poorer countries. All those National Geographic documentaries provided to children with their DVD players would give them a fantastic education.

'Frankly my dear, I dont give a damn'

Martin: Not making your source code open is quite arrogant and frankly reeks of colonialism. You are basically saying that no one in the developing world can improve upon your device and further, that you know what is best for them.

OLPC is about empowering people in the developed world through education. Your attitude towards your ebook reader makes me thing you are on an ego trip.


I hope my feeling that it might be risky to 'open' the source code for Illumination has none of the reasons you have so discourteously put forward.

My own approach to the children we are supposed to be serving is precisely that I do believe that among them are the developers, inventors and occasionally, the pure geniuses -- both technical nd artistic -- which the rest of us so badly need.

If you take the trouble to look through my posts to this group you will see that I have in fact said so.

My caution is due solely to the fact that, while I'd welcome any improvement in the way Illumination does what it does, I'd rather discuss such improvements with their authors than simply allow what might turn out to be damaging re-coding to go ahead willy-nilly.

I shall, now and always, be delighted both to teach anyone in the world and to learn from them.

Colonialism? It is to laugh, Will. ROFL, as they say.

If I am on an "ego trip", you, sir, are merely rectiloquent.


Martin Woodhouse

Hello All,

Incidentally: I am sure that as part of the testing of the XO/string-pull-generator concept, some fairly extensive and accurate testing has been done of how many minutes of string-pulling are actually neeed for how many minutes of 'computing' (of varying processor-intensity)?

Could someone point me to the results of such testing? It's a quite important matter and I'd rather stop puting forward my own theoretical guesses based on wattages, when there must -- I am sure -- be real-world evidence available to us?

Cheers, Martin

"Incidentally: I am sure that as part of the testing of the XO/string-pull-generator concept, some fairly extensive and accurate testing has been done of how many minutes of string-pulling are actually neeed for how many minutes of 'computing' (of varying processor-intensity)?"

Actually, no. That is because the real conversion factor depends on the batteries installed. And the OLPC is still undecided between NIMH and LiFeP batteries. NIMH are more durable and robust in charging, but store less energy than LiFeP. However, the latter could be less safe (and still experimental).

However, the calculations come down to power generated by child times efficiency of charging versus power needed operating the laptop. You don't need experiments for that, just the numbers from children, converters, batteries, and laptops. All of them will be "experimental".

Battery and power info

Discusses a lot of other charging options. String pulling is just one of them.

This article hints at 4:1 by an adult, which would be unacceptable.;209361038

From the Hardware Specifications (same wiki)
* Fully-enclosed “hard” case; user removable
* Pack type: 4 Cells, 6V series configuration
* Two chemistries:
o NIMH, with a capacity of 16.5 Watt-hours
o LiFeP, with a capacity of 22 Watt-hours
* Electronics integrated with pack provide:
o Identification
o Battery charge and capacity information
o Thermal and over-current sensors along with cutoff switch to protect battery
* Cycle life: Minimum 2,000 charge/discharge cycles (to 50% capacity of new, IIRC).
* Power Management will be critical


Hi winter and all

Sound stuff. I have added a very primitive idea for small scale power-generation in equally primitive surroundings to the wiki article you have quoted

Battery and power info

Cheers, Martin

if the necessary power for your e-book-reader will really be as low as 0.1 Watt then also a small solar panel might become an option. It would not be too large and therefore too expensive. At such a low power it might even be cheaper than a string generator. And having no moving parts would increase the durability. The highest efficiency of (very expensive) solar cells is at 40%. Affordable ones might be around 20% very cheap ones around 10%. Lets go for the 20% efficiency. Perpendicular solar irradiation at clear skies to the earth's surface is about 1000W/m2.

So in optimal conditions 500 mm2 (about 1 square inch) would be sufficient. Now you should include contingency for clouds like a factor of 2 and contingency for degradation, oblique irradiation and running the device while charging let's say another factor of 2. So 2000 mm² or about 4 square inches would be a first estimation for the solar panel area. The solar cells may be incorporated on the inside of a protective cover for the screen. When it is folded open it can be used for generating power. With a charged battery you could read also at night. However, in that case you need a back lit display adding to the power consumption. A standard AA size NiMH battery has typically 2000 mAh at an average of 1.1 Volts resulting in a capacity of 2.2 Wh. So consuming 0.1 W you could run the device for 20 hours with such a battery. And on a sunny day with the device switched off you would need around 5 hours to charge it again.

"My caution is due solely to the fact that, while I'd welcome any improvement in the way Illumination does what it does, I'd rather discuss such improvements with their authors than simply allow what might turn out to be damaging re-coding to go ahead willy-nilly."

That is a common problem in open source development. Centralized control over anarchy? The point is, if the platform is developed with the idea that everybody can easily implement apps for it, than there is almost nothing that can go wrong. I'll give you an example: If for an app you need to write and compile it, things may not be that easy for novices, either to learn or to practice. If instead you design your platform so that apps can be written in interpretative languages with lots of documentation (Python...), everything is safer; at worst your apps will crash but not the rest of the system. Sugar is developed with that in mind. I strongly suggest anyone to go and look at how simple and safe to develop an app is on sugar. The only thing is missing is a simpler way to design GUIs, it'd be great if this could be done through etoys.

So in essence, central control is good for quality. However the guidance need to be compatible with the needs of local users. So a system designed to give a certain degree of freedom in developing apps safely, is a welcomed approach.



Roland : Yes, solar power plus a small battery seems an excellent idea. As a matter of fact it's clear, isn't it, that in areas which have to generate every watt-hour of electricty on their own, to have sveral sources of energy -- including solar and manual or foot power -- is probably the best way to go.

Incidentally athough I think 0.1W (mean, over time) is a reasonable target to ain for it's not, on reflection, a figure i'd care to use as a "quote", just yet. 0.2W would be more reasonable until both the screen (superbly energy efficient) and the 'going to sleep with material on-screen' software techniques (eqially bright) have been refined still further . . .

Nick -- I agree with you, too. The fact is that the ILLUMINATION book-reading and book-creation suite I wrote some time ago produces its quite exceptional efficiencies partly as a result of having large chunks of it coded directly in assembly, which isn't an area popular with many programmers, I imagine.

It's partly this which has made me cautious about releasing the source code for anyone to alter . . . I'd rather talk to such a person myself before they embarked; doing so might well enable them to show me a better way of achieving a particular result, for instance, which of course I'd welcome.

Cheers, Martin

I am a librarian who got his start in a middle school in Togo where there were few books and no electricity (40 years ago), and I'm deep in the high tech world (9 years at Apple's advanced technology group) and six years consulting in developing countries.

People in the countries where I've worked appreciate printed matter. The uni. library in Kampala had most of their books in a cage, and the outlying teacher colleges had few books, needed more, and also welcomed the 10 computer labs we set up. Having access to all the online material was a revelation to these educated folks with few resources. However with all the teachers and 400 students, there was a lot of competion to use the computers, and frankly they did not have time to sit and read all of the pdfs and e-books available.

I have delivered books in Spanish to an Ecuadorian telecenter and library. They were received with great pleasure even as they had good connectivity in their own lab. Most countries have reading programs to encourage it in youth and in adults. some are well funded and most rely on printed matter. That might change as more people get access. All I'm saying is that both e-media and books and magazines are welcome in many of these places.

We have a 3rd world in the USA "Puerto Rico" can you help our children in La Yuca Ponce Pr. 00731?

XO Tablets for Sale

Buy Your XO Tablet on
OLPC is selling the new XO Tablets on for just $149. Buy yours today!



Recent Comments

Community Forum