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If kids don't have electricity, will a laptop change their lives?

This week I received some flack from readers for favoring Intel's Classmate PC distribution model over OLPC's, not just because I'm apparently a Wintel devotee (despite my advocacy and daily use of Linux), but also because of the power consumption differences between the two models. One reader wrote:50% of the world's children (1 billion) have no electricity at home.
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This week I received some flack from readers for favoring Intel's Classmate PC distribution model over OLPC's, not just because I'm apparently a Wintel devotee (despite my advocacy and daily use of Linux), but also because of the power consumption differences between the two models. One reader wrote:

50% of the world's children (1 billion) have no electricity at home. The OLPC technology consumes 2 Watts of power; the ClassMate 65. A human can generate 15-20 Watts by pulling, cranking, pedeling, etc. A 1x1 foot solar panel also does the trick.

Do the math as they say...

Well, according to the OLPC Wiki (which doesn't provide aggregate power consumption numbers), the XO uses about 10% of the power of a typical laptop. Since most laptops use 15-45 watts, the XO numbers may not be completely off-base, and are certainly notable for their green-ness. The 65 watt number is a victim of propaganda; the actual numbers are closer to 20, although I'm waiting for a confirmation from Intel.

Propaganda aside, though, let's address my original question. If kids don't have electricity, will a laptop change their lives? Maybe, if the laptop comes bundled with a large wind turbine to generate power for sanitation and water pumping/purification. I'm all about reducing our carbon footprint. I grew up wearing Birkenstocks in Seattle. Climate change is my middle name. However, even the OLPC website now provides sketchy details on the server hardware supporting the XOs on the backend for storage in Web access. The satellite uplink or other means of connecting to the Internet would also require power. The amount of "pulling, cranking, pedeling [sic], etc.," is now becoming a bit more daunting.

My ongoing problem with this project is not the level of innovation it brings to the table. On the contrary, the so-called Sugar interface really does seem to be a very cool way to interact with both applications and those around you (not that I would know first-hand since OLPC won't send me a laptop to test). The green tech, despite serious performance compromises, is certainly noteworthy as well, and I expect it will continue to trickle down to other devices. I simply can't envision how this will make a real difference for kids who don't even have access to electricity, clean water, medical care, or trained teachers.

Unfortunately, while the Digital Divide may be a real issue in countries that have managed to at least meet people's basic needs and are now attempting to train children for a 21st century global economy, I have very serious doubts that bridging this divide in countries lacking basic infrastructure will make the infrastructure appear. The very fact that so many children lack electricity (and other associated "luxuries") makes the power consumption arguments between 1:1 computing devices nothing more than an exercise in conservation and political correctness.

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