The One Laptop per Child (OLPC) project will make Linux as popular on the desktop as it is on the server today, according to Nicholas Negroponte, head of the project and founder of MIT's media lab.
Speaking on the final day of Red Hat's annual user summit in Nashville, Negroponte told an audience of Linux enthusiasts and technology professionals that the OLPC project will lead to mass adoption of the operating system, if the software that powers it is efficient and usable enough.
"One of the side-effects is that it will boost worldwide consumption of Linux on the desktop so incredibly that it will be on par with where it is with servers," he said. "We need your support not to make it overweight and hard to use like all the others are."
The One Laptop per Child project aims to develop a portable PC for use by children in the developing world for around $100 (£50). The price has risen since the scheme was first announced to around $135 to $140, according to Negroponte.
"It is a floating price. We are a non-profit organisation, we have a target of $100 by 2008 but probably it will be $135, maybe $140. That is a start price but what we have to do is with every release make it cheaper and cheaper — we are promising that the price will go down," said Negroponte.
Currently on leave from MIT to push the OLPC message full-time, Negroponte said that although his project has received widespread support from companies such as Red Hat — which is building the operating system — and AMD, some elements of the IT industry are not on-side.
"AMD is our partner, which means Intel is pissing on me. Bill Gates is not pleased either, but if I am annoying Microsoft and Intel then I figure I am doing something right," he said.
Microsoft allegedly offered to build the operating system for the machine but was rejected by the OLPC project. Negrponte added that the project required an extremely scaled-down OS to enable the eventual machines to run at a decent speed, while using very little power. "About 25 percent of the cost of a laptop is there just to support XP, which is like a person that has gotten so fat that they use most of their muscle to move their fat," he said.
The philosophy behind the OLPC project is that the best way to improve the education of children in the developing world is to give them the means to educate themselves by providing them with a PC that they see as their own.
Negroponte claimed that there are around one billion children in the world, with half in remote rural locations where there are no real schools, and teachers themselves have little more than a basic education. "It is very primitive. In situations like that, more teachers and schools are not the solution — it can take decades that way. A much quicker solution is to engage the children themselves in their own education," he said.
Past attempts to give children in developing countries access to PCs have failed because the children did not see the computers as their own, and as a result did not engage with them as expected. "People say we just gave a hundred thousand PCs to schools, and they still sitting in their boxes. The problem is that you gave then to the wrong people — the kids don't think they are theirs, and see them as government property, or they are locked up after school."
The key to making computing projects work in education is scale, according to the OLPC boss. He claimed that the sheer number of machines the group is planning to build means that it can not only buy cheaper components, but it has the ability to change corporate strategies. Negroponte related an anecdote about meeting the head of a PC display company who claimed that he could not build the kind of display OLPC needed until he found out that their order would be for 100 million units.