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Negroponte: Slimmer Linux needed for $100 laptop

The head of the One Laptop Per Child organization says he'll use Linux, but it needs to go on a diet.

BOSTON--The One Laptop Per Child organization will use Linux on its inexpensive machines, but the operating system suffers the same code bloat as Windows, the project's leader said Tuesday.

"People aren't thinking about small, fast, thin systems," said Nicholas Negroponte, chairman of the One Laptop Per Child nonprofit association, in a speech at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo here. "Suddenly it's like a very fat person (who) uses most of the energy to move the fat. And Linux is no exception. Linux has gotten fat, too."

$100 laptop

The association hopes to distribute 5 million to 10 million of the systems to children in India, China, Brazil, Argentina, Thailand, Egypt, and Nigeria in the first quarter of 2007, somewhat later than the late 2006 launch Negroponte predicted at the World Economic Forum last year. He hopes the project will help supply the world's billion children with an education that undertrained teachers often can't supply. "At least 50 percent of those children don't get anything that even approximates what you and I would call an education," he said.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates criticized the initiative's products earlier this year, saying they should use more powerful machines with better displays, though Gates subsequently offered a warmer opinion. Negroponte chafed at Gates' view nonetheless.

"It's not about a weak computer. It's about a thin, slim, trim, fast computer," he said. Not only that, Microsoft is even involved in the effort. "We are also talking to Microsoft constantly. We are going to ship them development boards. They are going to make a Windows CE version (that supports the hardware). So jeez--why criticize me in public?"

System specs
The system will use a 500MHz processor from Advanced Micro Devices with 128MB of memory. It will use 512MB of flash memory and no hard drive, he said. The biggest remaining cost is the display.

The system will use a dual-mode display with a black-and-white, 1110-by-830-pixel mode in sunlight and a 640-by-480-pixel color mode otherwise.

Negroponte said one meeting with an unnamed display manufacturer spotlighted the importance of high-volume manufacturing.

"I said, 'We'd like to work with you on the display. We need a small display. It doesn't have perfect color uniformity, it can have pixel or two missing, it doesn't have to be that bright," Negroponte recounted. "The manufacturer said, 'Our strategic plan is to make big displays with perfect color uniformity, zero pixel defects and to make it very bright for the living room.'"

"I said, 'That's too bad, because I need 100 million a year.' They said, 'Well, maybe we can change our strategic plan.' That's the reason you need scale," Negroponte said.

As initially envisioned, the laptops sported a hand crank on the side to generate power, but Negroponte has scrapped that idea because the twisting forces that would be bad for the machine. Instead, some form of power generation device, likely a pedal, will be attached to the AC power adapter, he said.

"I was the longest holdout for the crank being on the laptop. I was wrong," he said, adding, "If you're a 10-year-old, maybe you can get your four-year-old to pedal for you."

The organization's goal is to sell $135 laptops in 2007, then cut the price to $100 in 2008 and $50 in 2010, he said.

The machines will consume 2 watts of power when running, 1 watt for the display, Negroponte said.

He's not worried about connecting the machines to the Internet because networking will develop on its own, he said, but later added that the vision relies on a built-in "mesh" network that links all the machines, even when the rest of the computers are shut down.

"I think between WiFi, WiMax and 3G, that's going to happen," Negroponte said. "We're heading to the point where 50 percent of the world will have a cell phone or some kind of (communication device) within 18 months. It's too voice-centric, and I could campaign to make it more data-centric, but that's going to happen, too."

The laptop's mesh networks will be anchored by data cached locally on $100 servers to be housed at schools, he added.

Once children have the laptops, they'll teach themselves, he predicted, making teacher training beside the point. "Teachers teach the kids? Give me a break," he said. "Give any kid an electronic game and the first thing they do is throw away the manual and the second thing they do is use it."