Why every child deserves a laptop

Why every child deserves a laptop

Summary: Matthew Szulik, chief executive of Linux specialist Red Hat, thinks that the One Laptop per Child scheme embodies what's best about free and open software

TOPICS: Tech Industry

The advance of technology in the last 10 years has given us a gift.

We have the opportunity to rebuild the collaborative social structures that have been lost in our communities. But this is not about simply rebuilding what we came to accept before; instead, this is a chance to build a new social fabric, and to build it in a defining way. A fabric that connects people as neighbours even though oceans may separate them.

Geographical and political borders are losing their relevance. The young people of today will be living and working in a world that is very different from the one we know. Competition is increasing. Our work and ideas travel around the world in an instant. Our young people will be competing and collaborating on a global scale. They will need a technology education that not only gives them the resources to perform their work, but gives them the tools they need to help them create.

The open-source model is built around the idea that technology is transparent, allowing the best ideas to win in an open, collaborative environment. Also fundamental to this model is the idea that open-source development should contribute to a body of knowledge that others can learn from and build upon. It's a philosophy that celebrates sharing, and one that gives back more than it takes.

One of the most exciting projects I've seen in many years, and one that demonstrates the opportunities offered by the open-source model, is the One Laptop Per Child project.

The goal of this project is stunning in its scope. To put laptops directly into the hands of millions of children around the world. To give them access to the wealth of information, educational applications and teaching resources available online today. And to give them a tool to help them communicate, create and share.

One Laptop is a non-profit organisation led by Nicholas Negroponte, designed to create extremely low-cost laptop computers that can be powered without electricity and run free, open-source software. Red Hat is proud to be a key contributor.

In creating the laptop, the design challenges the organisation has had to consider are significant. For example, how to provide power and network access in areas of the world where electricity and running water may not exist. How to ensure the device can run on as little power as a human can generate manually. How to create a display screen that can be viewed in direct sunlight. How to design a device that can withstand some of the world's harshest climates. How to produce it at such a low cost that even the most impoverished nations can afford it. And how to design a laptop and the software it runs on so it can be put directly into the hands of children.

In the past year, I've seen the One Laptop organisation and the Red Hat team work hard to overcome these challenges. The laptops will use human power for electricity, whether by hand cranks or pull-cords, and they'll use mesh networks to connect to one another and to the internet. The device will be specially designed to protect it from harsh elements such as heat and sand, and to reduce the need for service. There are no moving parts inside the laptop and the case will be sealed when closed.

To encourage curiosity and open learning, the system itself must be open so children can see technology work from the inside. The laptop's software will be open source. It will run an operating system that is Linux-based, a smaller version of the Fedora operating system. It will also feature an entirely new interface and desktop suite for children.

I believe One Laptop has the power to level traditional barriers to access. So no matter where in the world you are — even in the poorest and most remote areas, where even basic necessities are scarce — every child has the opportunity to connect, learn and participate in a global society in ways that were once impossible.

More than ever, I believe the philosophy of open source is changing the world.

We believe a key part of our mission as a company is to strengthen the social fabric through the democratisation of content. To encourage an environment where the work we create is free from conditions of artificial control. Where individuals can access global sources of information — bypassing the traditional gatekeepers. We now have to work to keep open other sources of content: music, text, images, video — even ideas.

The lessons we have learned about the power of collaboration can now translate beyond building software. It is time for us to take our process and share it with the world. To change lives through teaching people how to build and connect ideas, as the open-source movement has learned to do. We believe the open-source community can play a prominent role in developing the necessary tools and promoting the means of collaboration. I am honoured that our company has been able to serve the One Laptop Per Child initiative and contribute to open-source software globally, and look forward to new, collaborative opportunities on the horizon.

Biography: Matthew Szulik is chief executive officer of Linux distributor and services company Red Hat

Topic: Tech Industry

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  • Would you like one for your child ????

    OK. The concept is fantastic. However, in a sense this is equivalent to teaching kids how to drive on a cardboard car in bicycle wheels. Would you really like to have one for your child, in London, New York or Paris ???? ....or is it just "reserved" as "charity" to "3rd world" people ???
  • reality check

    I think the $100 laptop is a great technical challenge and is probably a lot of fun for all the people involved in the project. I also think that it will solve a lot of the challenges involved in creating a piece of kit at the smallest possible cost.
    The problem with it is that the people you intend it for as it says in the article may not even have running water. If someone is not even prepared to give $20 per child for the basic neccessities of life ie running water, inoculation against disease, etc then this laptop idea is never going to happen.
    I know education is very important and a key part of the growth of any the 3rd world countries, but I think the $100 laptop would be a much better proposition if it had a shovel attachment at one end.
  • $100 laptop: moving from a technical to a social debate

    This is a fairly length reply but please stick with it: I have lived and breathed this project for a little while now. I write in reponse to the suggestion of "shovels not laptops" and to further develop some of the key points that Red Hat's CEO Matthew Szulik brought up.

    The minimum order is 1 million laptops. The delivery of those laptops will represent the largest single human network ever created in one go. It will form a network with phenomenal potential. Networks succeed if they have a shared reference point which holds emotional import: see Facebook, Friends Re-united for online examples and think of any association or membership. The emotional reference point provides the essential component for active engagement.

    The laptop itself is an object to which the kids will have great emotional attachment: the head of the project, Nicholas Negroponte, reported an almost 0 breakage rate after 2 years with a pilot project in Cambodia. Why? Because the kids treat the laptop as their most valued possession and so take good care of them. The new type of education that they will all be receiving will also be a shared reference point.

    I think it is time the debate stopped focusing around whether or not the capability exists to produce the laptops. Let's start from the assumption that they have been made and 1 million kids in Argentina, Brazil, Nigeria, Thailand, China and Lybia have them. Assume a network with the tools to facilitate communication between the teachers and the students of those countries: what is the likely results of relations between those countries in 10 years time?

    Taking the 6 countries above, that
  • $100 laptop: moving from a technical to a social debate.....cont.....

    ......i think I must have exceeded the limit in my last post and so the last part was chopped........So to continue where I got cut off:

    A new global culture is emerging that does not have a country. It is defined by groups of interest: you can spend time and communicate online with those groups who share your interests. You may be a member of 10 groups with members from 100 countries. I think if these $100 laptop kids are able to be part of that developing culture then they have access to the world stage in way that they have never had before. I think that if you have friends in lots of countries then the likelihood of those kids growing into adults who understand, and care about on a personal basis, the needs of those other countries is greater.

    Let's not forget that they own the operating system. Let's not forget one of the greatest capacities of human kind: a child's ability to learn a language. I have never forgotten seeing a documentary of a group of deaf orphans in Nicaragua. It was post civil war and the kids came from all parts of the country. They had different types of sign language but slowly learnt each others
  • Part 3!!! $100 laptop: moving from a technical to a social debate

    ....chopped off again in my last post. It may be lengthy, but then this is possibly one of the most important projects in human evolution and the modern era. To continue from where I got chopped off by the limited posting system after part 2 of my reply.....

    This event should be PUBLICISED AND OPEN FOR THE PUBLIC TO ATTEND. Ideally it should find a means of broadcast to as many locations as possible. One of the major advantages of the $100 laptop project is one of its major disadvantages: there is no sales, marketing or research team. That gets the cost down but it means Negroponte's most efficient means of making it happening is to keep discussions to heads of state. None of the people who would be affected by it know about it. The above event should happen whether they end up getting the laptops or not. The success of the project lies as much on implementation as it's technical accomplishment. Sucessful implementation depends to large extent on decent preparation. Preparation is lagging too far behind. I think this event would be the catalyst to start addressing that and move the debate from the technical to the social world.

    I also think that documentaries should be being made concerning the imminent arrival of the laptops in all countries looking to buy them and be aired on TV to bring greater public awareness. The documentary producers should also be prepared to continue longitudinal studies on the impact of the laptops in order to assist the future adopters of one laptop per child.

    I read a blog recently that mentioned that the departments of education would own the project. I just can't believe that to be the case. If you have a network of a million kids who own the laptops and the operating system then it is pretty clear to me who will own this project. Once they have it, you try taking it away from them.
    I can
  • Contact ZDNet Editorial please

    Hey Joey,

    Thanks for your Talkback - one of the most comprehensive replies we have ever had I think.

    We'd be interested in running this as an opinion piece. Are you involved in the OLPC directly?

    Could you mail us with your name, exact job title, employer name and a decent digital head shot please to following address.


    many thanks

    Andrew Donoghue
    Executive Editor
    ZDNet UK
    Andrew Donoghue
  • Dumb idea

    This is the first time I have heard about this but it sure seems like a dumb idea. If my government bought laptops to give to kids, I would be really mad. The last thing I want to see is tax revenue going to a project like this. Now if the project is going to act as a charity and donate laptops, I'm ok with it. The last thing anyone needs is a government mandated laptop program. This is an example of socialism at it's worst. At least this project may help people realize why government run health care and education are a bad idea.

    Basically, government would be deciding that all children need to have laptops. Not just any laptop, they would need this particular laptop. But what if I didn't want my child to have a laptop at all? What if I wanted to provide my child with food and shelter instead? What if I had the means and I wanted to provide my child with a better laptop that possibly ran Windows or some other OS? This is a prime example of Equality vs. Quaility. The government would be deciding to use tax resources to give every child an equally crappy laptop. Some children may want a better laptop and still others may not want one at.

    I can respect the technical challenges that need to be overcome to create such a laptop. I just can't respect governments buying laptops to give to children. It is unethical. For this project to be a success they need to find a way to pay for the laptops that does not involve accepting funds from governments.
  • sites4kids

    I fully agree with the article - but what about their safe introduction to the internet ?.
    I run a couple of UK web companies - one a specialist niche designing "child-safe" protected websites aimed at foundation to Key Stage 2 level children. See http://www.sites4kids.co.uk
    The concept is to give them their own safe website - which they can initially use as their own personalised area for fun, but then developed to accomodate educational development.
    I am currently starting to develop a complementary directory on the site also - primarily aimed at promoting European sites (as European Internet child-safety still tends to be marketed more at high level.
    So bring it on lets open the debate for laptops for all children !