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Doing it for the kids, man: Children's laptop inspires open source projects

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October 27, 2006 08:59 AM ET - A network of developers who work on much of the most commonly used software on Linux is passing up multi-core monsters with gigabytes of RAM to target their code to a design of which only 500 prototype boards now exist: the "Children's Machine 1" from the One Laptop Per Child project. OLPC aims to put machines that function as a textbook collection and as a writing, drawing and music tool into the hands of schoolchildren, through large sales to national ministries of education.

The CM1 is tiny and slow by current hardware market standards. Current prototype boards have a 500MHz AMD Geode processor, which is x86-compatible but lacks some features of newer AMD and Intel chips. The CPU is underclocked to 366MHz to save power.

The CM1 has 128MB of RAM and 512MB of Flash memory, and lacks a hard drive. A low-power display designed for extended e-book reading supports 1200x900 resolution in black and white, and a lower resolution in color. The wireless hardware, by Marvell, is capable of running as part of a mesh network without waking up the CPU.

But the project's software goals are ambitious, and include a collaborative browsing and editing environment for working with e-books and Wikis, graphics and sound editing tools, and a Python development environment. The project plans to use only open source software on the laptop, and all the pre-installed content is to be in patent-free formats.

OLPC needs big software changes to make all that work on the CM1. According to the FAQ, "Today's laptops have become obese. Two-thirds of their software is used to manage the other third, which mostly does the same functions nine different ways."

The total size of the CM1's initial operating system load is less than 100MB, and doing that much functionality in that little space has become a programming challenge, says Christopher Blizzard, the leader of a group of engineers from Red Hat who the company has contributed to work on OLPC. "How much less can I do? I love that goal, we're going to have an operating system under 100 meg."  

The project, besides contributing code back upstream to the projects it depends on, is also contributing work on Thai and Arabic translations, said Walter Bender, OLPC's president, Software and Content. But CM1 isn't doing it alone. Whether it's the idea of turning kids on to creating things with computers or the puzzle-solving satisfaction of packing giga-functionality into mega-space, developers are making OLPC's goals their own.

"We can make our system go a hell of a lot faster than it has been," says Jim Gettys, vice president, Software Engineering for OLPC. "Fundamentally everything we do is of benefit to everyone's desktop. We're just sensitive to it. Five to 10% of the work has anything to do with OLPC. Most of it is all over the place in lots of different projects."

Abiword, a lightweight, quick-running word processor, is an example of the kind of software that OLPC is looking for. "In terms of office products they're probably the most flexible. They have been really interested and started doing mockups and working code," Blizzard says.

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