Friday, January 05, 2007

Cheap laptops to revolutionize software

Forget windows, folders and boxes that pop up with text. When students in Thailand, Libya and other developing countries get their $150 (U.S.) computers from the One Laptop Per Child project this year, their experience will be unlike anything on standard PCs.

For most of these children the XO machine, as it's called, likely will be the first computer they've ever used. Because the students have no expectations for what PCs should be like, the laptop's creators started from scratch in designing a user interface they figured would be intuitive for children.

The result is as unusual as — but possibly even riskier than — other much-debated aspects of the machine, such as its economics and distinctive hand-pulled mechanism for charging its battery. (XO has been known as the $100 laptop because of the ultra-low cost its creators eventually hope to achieve through mass production.)

For example, students who turn on the small green-and-white computers will be greeted by a basic home screen with a stick-figure icon at the centre, surrounded by a white ring. The entire desktop has a black frame with more icons.

This runic setup signifies the student at the middle. The ring contains programs the student is running, which can be launched by clicking the appropriate icon in the black frame.

When the student opts to view the entire "neighbourhood" — the XO's preferred term instead of "desktop" — other stick figures in different colours might appear on the screen. Those indicate schoolmates who are nearby, as detected by the computers' built-in wireless networking capability.

Moving the PC's cursor over the classmates' icons will pull up their names or photos. With further clicks the students can chat with each other or collaborate on things — an art project, say, or a music program on the computer, which has built-in speakers.

The design partly reflects a clever attempt to get the most from the machine's limited horsepower. To keep costs and power demands low, XO uses a slim version of the Linux operating system, a 366-megahertz processor from Advanced Micro Devices Inc. and no hard disk drive. Instead it has 512 megabytes of flash memory, plus USB 2.0 ports where more storage could be attached.

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