I blogged in June on the One Laptop Per Child project running trials in two locations in Africa. At a meeting of the quarterly Foresight ‘FAN’ Club (future analysts’ network) today in London, one of the partners had a prototype model with them. (The project has now moved on to a pre-production model). It looks increasingly like a significant disruptive technology.

Seeing a working model up close, one’s struck by its small size, robustness, low weight and significant portability (a carrying handle is even designed in). All of the machine is open specification and open source (Red Hat is a consortium menber), except for the patented screen, which is visible in bright sunlight (as I was able to verify for myself). Battery life is up to 12 hours, it can be powered from the wind-up handle or a treadle, and its power socket can manage currents from -20 volts to +35 volts.

The keyboard is waterproof (you could use it in the rain or spill a drink on it). It will connect direct to a wifi connection, and will also construct a mesh network if it’s out of range of a connection but there are other machines within range which are connected (so volume of use increases value). Technical details are on the OLPC site.

On current numbers the cost (for vast bulk orders) is $170, but the consortium is confident that a significant government order will come through shortly which will bring the cost to around the $100 mark. The machines are being built by Quanta, the world’s largest producer of laptops. If the OLPC consortium collapsed tomorrow, the knowledge of how to make the machines is already out there.

One of the most interesting aspects of the conversation was that the consortium is now considering selling the machines in the affluent North as well as selling in bulk in the South. There are several benefits:

  • it will reduce the likelihood of machines going to the South ending up on eBay
  • they can be sold at a margin which will provide a revenue stream for further development
  • probably most importantly, this will create visibility of the laptops to developers, who will start to write applications and thereby increase the capabilities and the use of the machines.

If this happens, it could accelerate the move towards use of web-based applications away from desk top software. No wonder Microsoft isn’t a member of the consortium.