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Notes From a Senior Editor: A Close Look at the OLPC

Jan 09, 2007, 19:00 (40 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by James Turner)

By James Turner
Senior Editor

The Final Design of the XO

I have seen it, touched it, and played with it. The final industrial design prototype for the XO, the device that the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) Initiative is going to start shipping to countries across the world this summer. AMD hosted a luncheon on Monday to give the press an update on the project, and to unveil the completed design.

Although the exterior form factor is now pretty much set ("Unless," said OLPC official Michalis Bletsas half-jokingly, "Nicholas has another late-night inspiration."), there is still work to be done on the software package and the hardware internals before the planned summer volume rollout of the unit.

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According the Bletsas, the Beta 1 units we saw had manufacturing screwups by several of the integrators. "That's why we have betas," he commented. For example, the touchpad buttons had been recessed rather than protruding, something that I noticed immediately when I tried to use the XO. With two more betas to go before the summer, Bletsas was unfazed by the glitches. He also called the current state of the software "barely useable," but again was confident that it would be where it needed to be by launch.

Michalis Bletsas, Chief Connectivity Officer for the OLPC

Only 750 of the Beta 1 machines were built, a limitation forced by the scarcity of a programmable logic chip used on the motherboard. Most of the Beta 1s went to beta testers in the field to gain comments. Bletsas commented that by doing this, they gained much more useful feedback than they would have with an in-house beta.

Many of the specifics of the OLPC XO were discussed at the luncheon. The final selection for power generation has yet to be made; it will be a yo-yo-like device that can be pulled by hand or foot, with a strap that can attached it to a belt or table. The yo-yo generates around 10 watts, while the XO consumes a mere 3 watts in non-intensive computing. This means, for example, that that for every 10 minutes of power generation, a child should be able to surf the internet for a half hour. The yo-yo is designed by Squid Labs, the first engineering prototype was delivered two days before the meeting. Bletsas said that the yo-yo was also being developed for commercial sale. "You could charge your cell phone in like five minutes," he said. The charger is on course to cost around $10 in parts, he indicated that a commercial unit wouldn't cost a lot more than that.

The XO Running in Tablet / e-Reader Mode

Inside the XO is a 23-watt Nickel-Metal Hydride battery than is good for about 15,000 cycles. Running at the highest consumption mode (watching video, playing games, or listening to music) the battery can operate the laptop for around six hours on a full charge. When the unit is idle and providing mesh network service, the usage time rises to over a day. The battery can be fully charged in around two and a half hours using the yo-yo, according to Bletsas. It's also designed to burn at only 106 degrees C, a much safer option than a Lithium Ion battery if the XO is thrown in a fire or abused.

As mentioned, the power profile of the unit changes dramatically depending on what the child is doing. Peak consumption is around 5 watts for high-demand media applications, it falls to around 3 watts for browsing, under a watt when used as an e-Reader in black and white mode, and only 350 milliwatts to participate in the mesh network. Keeping the power needs low as a mesh repeater was critical, because the chosen networking design works better the more nodes are available, and the longer they stay online ("stay as dense as possible as long as possible"). Because the network can operate without requiring the main processor to run, children won't need to worry that letting their XO participate in the mesh will drain the battery significantly. The radio itself is under $10 in production costs.

The Meshes Connect to Each Other and the Internet Through a Variety of Means

Keeping the 377-Mhz AMD processor processor from having to sip from the battery was a key concern. When used as an eReader, a separate frame buffer keeps the LCD updated, rather than having the processor do the job. This drastically reduced the power needed to keep a page displayed while a child reads. In general, the XO uses what Bletsas calls "Extreme Suspend," going to sleep after two seconds of inactivity, but waking up within 300 milliseconds of an action.

The innovative display design serves two purposes. By overlaying a lower resolution (1024x768) color screen over a very high resolution (200 DPI, 1200x900) black and white one, then can get what to the eye appears to be a much higher color resolution. The color display is transmissive and requires a 1-watt backlight, which is provided by power-efficient LEDs. The black and white display is reflective, and actually performs better the brighter the ambient light is. This makes it ideal for rural teaching settings, where classes may be held outdoors. Switching from color to black and white is simply a matter of turning off the backlight. The ultra-high resolution black and white display is meant to make the eReader highly useable for textbooks. Bletsas notes that although the display cost only about one-third what a typical laptop LCD costs, it will have a higher resolution that 95% of the laptops on the market.

The software is based on Fedora Cora 6, put on an diet to reduce it to 150 MB, and leverages Python heavily. According to Bletsas, both Microsoft (WinCE) and Apple (OS X) offered their operating systems, but neither fit the footprint or security requirements that the XO demanded. In addition, the closed-source nature of those operating systems wasn't a good fit to the OLPC philosophy.

The application environment looks nothing like a typical X-Window GUI that you or I have ever seen. Written menus are totally replaced with icons. In one example screen, the child can view all the other meshed XOs around them (the mesh is good point to point to about 600 meters), and see what activities the other children are involved in. Almost all activities can be done collaboratively. So, for example, multiple children can work on the same document or browse the web together. The distributions are fully open source, and can be downloaded and played with now at laptop.org. Also included will be a Gecko-based browser that Bletsas told me should be capable of displaying Flash-enabled web pages.

Viewing Other Children in the Mesh. Clusters Indicate Children Doing Things Together.

Bletsas says that the design philosophy tries to leverage Moore's law in the opposite direction from that being taken by traditional laptop manufacturers. "When I bought my first laptop, it was $3,200. The last one I bought was $3,100. My latest on is 10,000 times as fast as my first one, but still takes the same amount of time to boot." Bletsas says that laptop manufacturers have tried to cram more and more into their products, rather than use the falling cost of existing processors to produce a cheaper product. He acknowledges that the XO is not designed on intended for power users in the developed world. "You have to look at this through the needs of a child [in the developing world]. A child doesn't want to play the latest video games. he wants to be able to read a book."

The XO includes a Video Camera, Microphone, and Speakers

Also being developed is a central server designed to sell for around twice the cost of an XO, with a laptop hard drive and running under 5 watts in operation. Although the intent is that each mesh (which should correspond to a local school) will be connected to the Internet, the OLPC is not mandating a single solution. According to Bletsas, there are so many peculularities to each countries information infrastructure, that it really needs to be handled on a country by country basis. Among the connectivity solutions that are being suggested are satellite, WiMax, and cellular. The prototype server has already been tested with satellite receiver boards. The key again, says Bletsas, is that the connectivity can't require huge amounts of power. He says that when a WiMax provider tells him that their central facility will require "only" about what a hair-dryer uses (1000 watts), his initial reaction is "Where am I going to get that kind of power?" He continues that the OLPC has been aggressively pushing its connectivity partners to adopt the same power-miserly approach that went into the XO.

Because of the emphasis on the XO as an eReader, content is obviously key. One third of the 15 full-time employees at the OLPC work on content development. According to Bletsas, Latin America is in the best shape, due to Mexico's aggressive initiative to produce an electronic library of all of their text books. The OLPC is also working with the Wikimedia Foundation and Google to make locally cached versions of the databases available on the local school servers.

A Closer View

Bletsas doesn't believe that the XO is at risk of becoming the latest target for botnets. "For one thing," he comments, "Why would anyone try to create a botnet on 377-Mhz laptops with a relatively low-speed Internet connection when there are all these unprotected computers already sitting around." In addition, the design of the operating system protects against infection by running each application in its own virtual machine, preventing any potential security loopholes in a given application from spreading to others.

The OLPC is still working on bringing down the cost of the XO. "The first units will be closer to 100 Euros than 100 dollars," admits Bletsas. They hope to drop under the magic $100 figure during 2008. One way that costs are being kept down is to deliver the units en-masse to governments for delivery along the same channel as they currently use for textbooks, keeping the OLPC out of the distribution business. "If we were selling this laptop through normal consumer channels, it would be more like a $250 laptop."

In addition, Bletsas indicates that the units have been designed around low-failure operation, with no moving parts. For example, the motherboard sits directly behind the LCD, avoiding the need for a failure-prone connecting cable. By giving the laptops to the children to own rather than the school, the OLPC also believes that there will be less vandalism on careless treatment. About the only part worth replacing if it fails is the LCD, Bletsas says that there will likely be central repair depots set up by the governments to handle the repairs that make sense, otherwise failed units will just be replaced.

Bletsas also envisions the children becoming their own support network, trading tricks and tips with each other, and actually becoming peers with their teachers. "Teachers tend to learn much slower than the kids themselves," he notes. He says that waiting for teachers to become fully trained in the use of the XO would bog down adoption significantly. He likens the training and support model to a peer to peer network. "We believe in empowering the kids."

Members of the Press Question Bletsas

Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina, Pakistan, Nigeria, Libya, and (most recently) Rwanda are the countries currently signed up for the program. Bletsas indicates that the program will actually be supply rather than demand limited in 2007. The goal is to deliver five million laptops within a year of the summer rollout, a goal he notes will represent a 10% increase in the total worldwide laptop production for the year and will be the largest single deployment of a computing platform ever. The units will be divided up between the program countries rather than concentrating on any one to the exclusion of the others, with countries encouraged to deploy to entire schools rather than cherry-picking students, to avoid envy. The only requirement being placed on the countries is that the laptops must go directly to the children.

Bletsas acknowledges that some abuse is inevitable. "Will some parents sell their children's laptops on the gray market? Sure." He also stated that the OLPC would rather engage with countries that might attempt to filter or censor information access, rather than isolate them. He notes that as soon as you give any Internet access to people, they tend to figure out how to work around whatever restrictions the government may have placed.

Editorial note: Because of the length of this report, I will be combining my report from Show Stoppers (there be Linux there, arrrrgh!) with my second day show floor report, which should be available Wednesday morning.

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