$100 Laptop: Great for the world, great for Linux

Mike Evans from Red Hat discusses his company's involvement in the One Laptop per Child project, which aims to develop and distribute a $100 PC to millions around the world

Once it became clear that Nicholas Negroponte, one of the key originators of the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) initiative, was going to insist that the device use open source software, Linux provider Red Hat became the most likely provider of the device's operating system.

With offers from Apple and Microsoft having been rejected by OLPC, the non-profit organisation set up to oversee the project, Red Hat is now working to develop an OS — probably a version of Fedora — to work with the stripped-down laptop that is charged up by way of a wind-up handle.

After reviewing several bids, OLPC announced in December that Quanta Computers would manufacture the laptop; and five companies along with Red Hat — Google, AMD, News Corporation, Nortel, and Brightstar, have committed $2m (£1m) each to fund the project.

Although a working prototype of the product was showcased at the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis in November, 2005, Red Hat claims it is still working hard on the operating system, and on integration with the education software that will accompany it.

ZDNet UK sat down with Mike Evans, Red Hat's vice-president of corporate development, to find out how the work is progressing, and to learn about the company's wider hopes for a project which could put a Linux-based device in the hands of potential millions of children around the world.

So is the OLPC project progressing at the pace you imagined?
We first started talking to Nicholas Negroponte in April 2005. We now have people actually working onsite at MIT. The aim is to get million unit commitments from a set number of governments and there are several countries that we are having heavy discussions with right now. Since the project was formally announced the amount of interest has been astounding.

Some argue that the $100 target price is unrealistic, and that a machine would already exist at or near this price through market competition if it was possible?
There are existing models of other technologies, whether it be Dell or Apple, but nothing on this grand a scale, with this price point and with this academic and historical horsepower behind it. The people at the MIT labs have 20-plus years of computer expertise. To me the timing is especially interesting. If someone attempted to do this four years ago it wouldn't have worked, but now I have seen that there is a real will among developing countries to bring their people forward right now.

While the laptop has the potential to be enormously beneficial to the developing world, could it also have a disruptive impact in developed countries such as the US?
There has been strong interest from several governors of states in the US who have been interested in having their state commit to acquire laptops. I see the impact of this laptop as similar to the impact that Linux has had in the commercial IT sector. It has been pretty dramatic when you consider the range of Fortune 1000 companies to the Googles of the world running their entire operations on it. This project will globalise some of that effort and put a concentration of mass behind open source development.

So there is a kick-back to the open source community from being involved with this project beyond the altruistic act of providing the tech for the laptop itself?
Yes absolutely. The open source community is a very global medium — no one country dominates it. For us this is as good an opportunity as we have ever had to help a million school children. We have already seen rampant use of open source in colleges and universities. The vision I have is seeing five, ten, twenty, eventually...

...hundreds of millions of schoolchildren growing up using the laptop technology with open source as a fundamental part of that. Some will never understand what the value of open source is, but others will and will be able to create their own models and create their own variations. If you extrapolate that out over five, ten, twenty years then you have an incredibly disruptive global force.

Is this project a way to inject some momentum into the concept of Linux on the desktop?
I have been with Red Hat for about six years and have been involved with some of the desktop technology. What we have always said is that Linux and the open source desktop is an incremental game and there is no Big Bang change waiting to happen. It's about turning the knob a little bit every six months — we have never really overhyped the desktop. It has been very good theatre for people to write about but we are pragmatic about it — just like everybody in the open source community doesn't wake up everyday thinking: "How can I kill Microsoft?" In the grand scheme of things I think this will help invigorate the Linux desktop technology dynamic, but again that is not the main motivation.

So do you see this device as being closer to a cut-down laptop or a large PDA?
That depends on one's definition of both those categories, I guess. Laptops and PDAs are constantly merging and getting closer together as time goes on and we are talking almost another year before the first shipment is manufactured. From what I have seen, and what I understand from what we are doing on the software side, it will be closer to the laptop functionality.

Could you tell us more about the operating system you are developing for this project?
Our software team is driving the operating system efforts but other open source educational applications are also being developed to ship with the laptop. We are still determining what systems to use, but the Fedora technologies will play a big part of it.

So it will be a scaled down version of Fedora or something akin to that?
Possibly. We are still working that out.

Rather than providing a new, untested technology, wouldn't it be better to use the resources that OLPC has available to simply provide one working PC with an Internet connection per village in the areas you wish to help?
There are a lot of angles to look at with this project, and alternatives to it. I know the MIT people have a lot of experience with this kind of project — whether it is helping the State of Maine in the US, or remote villages in developing countries. I think there also other organisations that will step up and offer the other pieces necessary to make this work. The OLPC effort had to choose one major thing to focus on and see through. I truly believe that this whole effort, even if it fails, will make a positive step forward by making people aware of it and getting them engaged in the topic. Even if after two years everyone says, "You know what, that wasn't the best way to do it, the best way to do it is this..." that is still a big win. There is so much need and so many people that you can't solve it all with any one method anyway.

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