$100 PC project will 'invigorate Linux desktop push'

Putting an open source-based laptop in the hands of millions of users around the world will help drive home the importance of non-proprietary development and applications, says Red Hat

Open source software company Red Hat believes that the $100 laptop initiative could inject momentum in interest and take-up of open source desktop operating systems.

Speaking to ZDNet UK on Monday, Mike Evans, vice-president of corporate development said that although this is not the primary aim of the project, a cheap ubiquitous open-sourced based laptop would potentially initiate an increased interest in open source desktop technology.

"This will help invigorate the Linux desktop tech dynamic but it is not the main motivation," he said.

Evans added that Red Hat has opted to take a pragmatic and evolutionary approach to the uptake of Linux on the desktop and that the adoption will happen gradually rather than in one "big bang" conversation.

The $100 laptop project — also known as the one laptop per child (OLPC) scheme — was announced at the World Economic Forum in January 2005.  Originally a research project at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab, the project aims to put a cheap lap top in the hands of students around the world particularly those in developing countries.

The final design was shown off for the first time last November.

Red Hat, which formally announced its participation in the scheme on Monday, has been tacitly involved in the project since April 2005 when Nicholas Negroponte, chairman and co-founder of MIT's Media Lab, claimed to be interested in basing the project around open source software.

"At Red Hat, we believe that open source technology can change the world, and is still in its infancy. It's a guiding principle that is embodied in everything we do," said Matthew Szulik, chairman, president and chief executive of Red Hat.  "Beyond a founding corporate sponsorship, we've put engineering and other strategic resources behind the One Laptop per Child initiative to add our expertise, global reach and focus to the project."

According to Evans, the OLPC operating system could be based around a scaled-down version of Fedora — Red Hat's community distribution of Linux.

 The $100 laptop: A well intentioned waste of time? Read the feature

The issue of exactly how much each laptop will eventually cost has dogged the project since its inception. Although the figure of $100 (£56) was originally touted, Negroponte recently conceded that $115 may be more realistic.

The preliminary goal is to have initial units ready for shipment by the end of 2006 or early 2007 but manufacturing will not begin until between five and 15 million devices have been ordered and paid for in advance.

Speaking to ZDNet UK late last year, Tim Varney, a trustee of EdUKaid, an educational charity working in the Mtwara region of southern Tanzania, said that the potential success or failure of OLTP could depend on where the project is taken up.

"You really need foot soldiers on the ground to provide back-up and training on how to use these things. There are no quick fixes for the problems in Africa and I'm struggling to think of the benefits computers would bring to children that haven't learned to read and write properly because they don't have the proper equipment to do so," he said.

Red Hat claims that using an open source software platform is critical to the success of the OLPC project, as it will encourage local participation and allow students to customise and expand their machines as required.

Although Red Hat claims that is focused mainly on the development of the operating system for the OLPC machines, it also plans to engage the open source community in training, support, providing updates, certifications, and integrating additional technologies over time.

The backers of the OLPC project envisage that each machine will have wireless broadband that allows them to work as a mesh network – each laptop will be able to "talk" to its nearest neighbours — creating an ad hoc, local area network.  The laptops will also be able to be wound up and should be able to do most everything that "fat" clients can do, except store huge amounts of data.

Nicholas Negroponte will discuss the OLPC initiative and Red Hat's role at this year's Red Hat Summit on 2 June in Nashville, Tennessee.